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James Bruce’s Critique of My Consequentialist Libertarianism: Part II

In my last post, I offered some responses to James Bruce’s critique of my consequentialist libertarianism.  Now, I complete my response.

4.  Consequentialism and Constitutional Rules: Next consider political institutions and constitutional rules.  At the political level, this approach suggests that we should employ rules that are designed to produce good results.  That will, of course, mean laws and institutions that protect and promote liberty, but it may have certain limited departures such as the possibility of welfare for the poor.  But while the laws and institutions should ultimately be justified based on human welfare, that does not mean, as I develop below, that the government should have the discretion to freely depart from institutions of freedom based on its claims of promoting welfare.

Now consider constitutional rules.  Bruce claims that consequentialism is “a strategy of maximization. So the state can always appeal to the need to increase prosperity or decrease unemployment to pursue its social engineering.”  Thus, Bruce suggests that consequentialism will approve of cases like Kelo v. City of New London.

But this is mistaken.  There is a strong consequentialist argument for placing in the constitution a prohibition on takings of private property for nonpublic uses (takings that Kelo wrongly approved).  Even though the state claims to be acting for the public welfare, that does not mean we should allow it to act on this claim.  Instead, the state will neither have the right incentives nor adequate information to use the eminent domain power to good effect when it is allowed to act for nonpublic use.  Thus, we should constitutionally prohibit such actions on consequentialist grounds, even though on occasion the state might act beneficially.  In general, its takings will be harmful.

Bruce counters that if Kelo is prohibited, it will be based not on a “principled objection” but “just a pragmatic one.”  But this is not persuasive for a couple of reasons.  First, I don’t know why it matters whether our constitutional provisions have a principled basis or a pragmatic one.  Second, I reject this distinction.  For a consequentialist, all constitutional provisions will be justified on the basis of promoting the welfare of the people, but that does not make them any less weighty.  Finally, as any lawyer know, the distinctions in our laws are often messy and seem pragmatic.  For example, should we allow takings for public use with just compensation or instead require the state to negotiate like any other private actor?  If we allow such takings (as Bruce seems to suggest we should), is that based on principle?  Maybe, but what principle?  Most often, such takings are justified on the ground that they are needed to promote the public welfare.

5.  Theories Based on Truth and Theories Based on Defending One’s Position

Finally, I want to speculate on the hostility that philosophers, including libertarian and conservative ones, feel about consequentialism.  The arguments that Bruce makes are representative of the criticisms of consequentialism.  (For others that are also representative, which I hope to respond to in the future, see this post by Matt Zwolinski at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog.)  The basic argument is that consequentialism is problematic because freedom may not always lead to desirable results.

Now, what is odd about this argument is that libertarians almost always believe that freedom leads to good results.  The typical argument is: “While individual freedom leads to good results, you have a right to it whether or not it does.”  So why do libertarians suddenly start imagining horrible consequences when someone asserts consequentialism?

The answer may be complicated, but I do think at least one thing is going on.  When arguing with non-libertarian opponents, libertarians are able to make a cleaner argument if they pursue non-consequentialist arguments.  The non-libertarian will believe freedom often has bad consequences and rebutting those arguments is often very complicated, requiring specialized knowledge not only for the libertarian to make his argument, but also for his non-libertarian opponent to appreciate the argument.

It is so much cleaner simply to assert that people have a right to freedom.  No complicated arguments about real world consequences.  Of course, when the opponent disagrees with the moral premises – about individual freedom – there will be controversy, but it is difficult for anyone to dislodge the libertarian from his position.  He may not be able to persuade the other guy, but at least he is secure in his own position.  After many discussions with non-libertarians, the libertarian comes to feel more comfortable and secure making the non-consequentialist argument.

The problem is that, while this secure feeling may be relevant to defending libertarianism, it is not necessarily relevant to the truth of the theory.  Simply feeling liberty is important tell us about our feelings, not necessarily about the validity of the theory.  Instead, if the welfare of the people is the important thing, then it is the complicated world of real world consequences that matters, even if it makes one feel less secure.

Reader Discussion

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on May 17, 2012 at 20:00:14 pm

So you've reached the point where you're not even balancing liberty against other values. You only HAVE other values. Why do you want to call your self a libertarian, then? Why not just call yourself a utilitarian, and be done with it? Seriously?

Libertarians value being free. We may value other things, too, but liberty itself has value, which has to count against the gains one supposedly stands to gain by sacrificing it. I don't see where that's showing up in your analysis. It's not just that you're arguing for a purely consequentialist analysis, it's that you don't seem to count losing liberty as a "consequence". You don't seem to count it *at all*, if it doesn't have some effect on something you actually value.

A defensible position, perhaps, but not a *libertarian* position. Can't you just leave the name to people who are in some sense libertarians?

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Brett Bellmore
on May 18, 2012 at 09:54:14 am

We can accept that many concepts can not be defined, only described.
Unless one can at least coherently describe a concept labeled "consequentialism," as one can, say, "capitalism," we will be dealing with a loose mish-mash of words about objectives for a social order that seem to require means for those ends which contravene the concept of normative Libertarianism.

There does seem to be an implication in this last post that the new label sought also may involve a different concept of "Liberty." There are well-read expositions of the differences in concepts of "Property:" That is, the relationsips of individuals with material items (Property) in a communal setting are differentiated by the other relationships of that individual within that setting, compared to those in a non-communal setting (e.g., rural vs. urban with zoning, etc.).

Implicit in the different concept of Liberty is the imposition of obligations, not voluntarily undertaken, as means for the objectives of the new labeled doctrine.
Such imposition of obligations limits Liberty. Normative Libertarianism does not encompass such impositions.

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Richard Schweitzer
on May 18, 2012 at 19:58:38 pm

Brett: Libetarianism, Love it or leave it? Sorry, I am a moderate libertarian. You don't have to consider me one, but I consider myself one.

I do value liberty -- for the choices that it allows people to make, for the incentives it gives people, for the sense of self that it allows people to develop, etc. That is why you should value it as well. Simply saying that you value liberty for its own sake is either hard to defend or is translatable into what I have said.

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Mike Rappaport
on May 19, 2012 at 11:01:57 am

"I do value Liberty."
There is the statement of the doctrine seeking a label.
"Value" v.t. : To estimate the value or worth of; to appraise; to rate in usefulness, excellence, etc.; to hold in high esteem; to prize.

Normative Libertarianism is framed in the concerns for the effects of the functions of governments upon Liberty; basically a doctrine of limiting those effects by limiting those functions.

If you will accept that the "moderating" doctrine that appeals to you will require the imposition and enforcement, through the functions of government, of obligations not voluntarily assumed (by taxation, regulation, assignments, allocations, etc.), in order to attain specific objectives (regardless of their social or moral merit), then your doctrine's label would be factitious to include Libertarianism in its wording.

That does not invalidate the doctrine, which is one currently in vogue, as well as in deep doubt.

Call it another "Great Awakening;" have tent revivals of the "moral spirit" by which these obligations to one another at all levels need be met. But, once the functions of government are called for to attain whay should come of "moral spirit," you have left the province of Libertarianism.

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Richard Schweitzer
on June 09, 2012 at 02:43:09 am

This guy's language is as imcperise and vague as his arguments. He completely misunderstands the harm principle (and likely because he is citing Mill's utilitarian version of it, even though Mill had absolutely nothing to do with the deontological libertarianism that Wolff is trying to debunk).He creates a straw man by saying If economic competition DOES harm people . . . This is most definitely NOT what deontological libertarians understand the harm principle to entail. It's actually the opposite. Harm is generally understood as violating the rights (almost always property rights stemming from the natural right of self-ownership and homesteading) of others. And this violation of rights always implicitly involves a certain level of causation (to use annoying legal language, but-for causation AND proximate causation).And this is where Wolff falls off the tracks. He claims that there is no fundamental difference between (Situation A) a competitor burning down my business, and (Situation B) a competitor using newer technology to lower his prices, and driving me out of business.In both situations, I am losing my property rights. But in Situation A, my property rights are being violated, because, implicit in the concept of violation are the two concepts of causation. But-for the competitor burning down my building, with no independent sufficient causes or intervening causes in between, I would still have my property. Thus, my property rights have been violated, consistent with deontological libertarianism.Whereas in Situation B, my property rights are not being violated because, there is simply too big of a causal gap between the competitor using new technology to drive down prices and my going out of business. There is only a VERY tenuous argument for but-for causation (perhaps my business would have closed down, even without the new competition ), and there is NO argument for proximate causation. The closing down of my business because of competition is only barely foreseeable (reasonable people can see that it is not explicitly foreseeable that a business will close down simply because there is also a competing business), and there are numerous intervening causes. Between competition with new tech and lower prices and my business closing down exists any number of intervening causes, including my not buying the new tech, my not altering my business model, my not shifting to appeal to other customers, my not restructuring my business, customers not purchasing from my store, and so-on-and-so forth.So the other business owner is not violating my rights because the implicit conceptual hurdle of causation isn't being met.Wolff basically decided not to even try and unpack what the libertarian harm principle entails. Of course there are difficulties with the harm principle and natural rights, but they occur farther down the line, at a point that Wolff doesn't even attempt to get to.

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Soufiane
on June 09, 2012 at 16:34:56 pm

that an appeal to liebtry is not enough, he's right. It's not an appeal to liebtry. It's an appeal to natural rights, as expressed above. Liberty is not a fundamental principle of natural-rights libertarianism. It's a conclusion from an appeal to numerous other premises.My disagreement with Jim is where he says that “violating my rights” is not the same as “harm”—unless one defines harm—as Mark has—in terms of rights, which means we get exactly the kind of question-begging that Wolff is attacking. This isn't begging the question at all. Violating my rights is NOT the same as harm, and if I led you to believe that, let me clarify.Wolff is using harm as a synonym for hurt or to cause pain. Deontological libertarians are, in fact, using harm as violating natural rights, which does not require any circular reasoning.If you violate someone's natural rights you are harming them. If you do not violate their natural rights, you are not harming them.And WHY is violating someone's natural rights the equivalent of harming someone. Well THAT is the place Wolff should have attacked Natural rights libertarians. Because there is simply no explanation as to why violating someone's natural rights is equivalent to harm (or even why violating someone's natural rights is bad. )

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Julian
on June 09, 2012 at 17:35:49 pm

It actually IS very msyaictl, which is why deontological natural rights based libertarianism isn’t based on “reason” at all, but on a mysterious faith in the idea that “nature = good.”All natural rights theories suffer from this problem, and since Hume and G.E. Moore pointed these problems out, they haven’t been able to figure out a real way to get around them. It’s not just beyond your ken. It’s beyond any level of cognition, because its a theory based on a leap of faith that everything that is natural/organic is “good.”That’s why Hermann-Hoppe came up with his whole Kantian “argumentation ethics” foundation for anarcho-capitalism/libertarianism. He realized that the natural-rights based version was on extremely shaky ground.In any case, I don’t think we really disagree as to the Wolff article, in the sense that Wolff’s writing is confused and he doesn’t really understand deontological libertarianism at all. Because while deontological libertarianism has faults, none of those faults come from the sufficiency or insufficiency of “appeals to liberty,” or “what constitutes harm,” as Wolff would have us believe.

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Nelly
on June 09, 2012 at 20:33:27 pm

It actually IS very myasictl, which is why deontological natural rights based libertarianism isn't based on reason at all, but on a mysterious faith in the idea that nature = good. All natural rights theories suffer from this problem, and since Hume and G.E. Moore pointed these problems out, they haven't been able to figure out a real way to get around them. It's not just beyond your ken. It's beyond any level of cognition, because its a theory based on a leap of faith that everything that is natural/organic is good. That's why Hermann-Hoppe came up with his whole Kantian argumentation ethics foundation for anarcho-capitalism/libertarianism. He realized that the natural-rights based version was on extremely shaky ground.In any case, I don't think we really disagree as to the Wolff article, in the sense that Wolff's writing is confused and he doesn't really understand deontological libertarianism at all. Because while deontological libertarianism has faults, none of those faults come from the sufficiency or insufficiency of appeals to liberty, or what constitutes harm, as Wolff would have us believe.

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Rincy
on June 10, 2012 at 03:22:04 am

One age? What a novel and sensible idea! One that would never occur to our stsitat politicians. Also I like the idea of adulthood being based on proof that it has been achieved. After all some are more mature than others.P-Style, in The Virtue of Selfishness Ayn Rand explained one potential way to fund courts, police, and the army so that everyone could afford them. I also have a couple of my own that could be added to her one. Especially since there would be no taxes, meaning we have more of our own money. So all kids become independant not just the poor. especially with the prunning PC speaks of.I assume 41 is a joke PC? Especially given your comment about people proving their maturity.

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John
on July 20, 2012 at 02:56:22 am

I used the phrase any other hosent right' simply to shorten the post, but my point was to show how Rothbard came to this conclusion. As Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe notes in the introduction to , Rothbard wasn't suggesting, hypothesizing, pondering, or puzzling but offered axiomatic-deductive arguments and proofs . Rothbard used this axiomatic-deductive method to reason out not only self ownership, but a justification for all property rights. All natural rights are property rights, and as such I don't see how any natural human right can be hopelessly vague; I own my body and anything which I've appropriated from nature, acquired through voluntary exchange, or received as a legitimate gift. No one else may rightfully dispose of anything I own without my consent, and to attempt as much is the initiation of force, the definition of the unjust use of force . There's no need for hosenty in discovering the natural rights of man, as they can be deduced by any of us through our innate ability to reason.It's not an ambiguity inherent to rights that statists prey on when they claim their faux justice, but upon hosent ignorance. Using the aforementioned definition of unjust force anyone, given some knowledge of the politician's subject matter, can immediately judge his intentions. Is he looking to set a minimum wage? This is clearly the initiation of force against employers, as employee salaries are theirs to set. This is an injustice. Is he looking to freeze the price of bread? To do so would be to initiate force against bread producers, whose prices are theirs to set. This is an injustice. Our politician, while campaigning for such just acts , can also declare that the sky is green and that 2 + 2 = 5. The truth itself will never change, despite any support the politician may garner.My understanding has always been that libertarianism demands only adherence to the Non-Aggression Principle. Klein, who spent twenty odd minutes advocating coercive force, is not a libertarian; in fact, judging from his list of good assaults on the property of innocent people, along with your own reaction, I wonder if he's even a genuine classical liberal. Classical liberals and libertarians can, have and will almost certainly continue to, work together on an incredibly large host of issues; there's plenty of ground to cover before practical conflicts arise between them. However, this cooperation doesn't necessitate any compromise on the part of either camp, let alone the adoption of Klein's bastardized libertarianism .

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Luke

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