Why I Have No Political Allies (from Oct. 26, 2009)

I agree with Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum that the idea of basic, objective human interests makes sense. Only people what gots enough to eat would think that life is all about preference-satisfaction. Yes, the latter is easier to model mathematically, if you’re an economist, but we are creatures of Darwin’s nature, which means we have a nature, and the valuableness of things like food, potable water, shelter, freedom from illness, the successful nurture of our children, friendship, and oh so many other things is a consequence of us being living beings, animals of a certain sort. So I must yearn for a world in which these substantive goods are divvied up “equitably” and we all spend a lot of time stressing about other people’s poverty, etc. Right? Wrong. Because it is probably also a part of our nature, and at the very least, is stupefyingly efficient, to produce and exchange the things needed to realize the above values through uncoerced, consensual exchange. The evidence for this borders on the overwhelming. So much so that the burden, and I think it is an enormous and generally not met burden is on the advocate of coerced, nonconsensual activity to justify departure from uncoerced, consensual activity. 

So what is that, some sort of libertarianism, right? I don’t think so, at least not as that word is commonly understood. The most basic reason is that while I think the value to the person in question of these Sen/Nussbaum-y goods is objective and in a certain sense pre-social, distinctively moral issues are interpersonal, and are constituted by cultural norms. I don’t think there’s any path from these value-interests to any moral obligations that we leave each other alone absent a cultural norm for that. Happily, there is a cultural norm against various forms of interference. But there are other cultural norms as well. And, most unhappily, there is no reason to think that all the cultural norms constitute a coherent set. So we’re just doomed to debate fundamental moral issues to all eternity. Since the kinds of moral interests we care about are broadly constrained by the fact that we’re all human, and by the range of possible psychological diversity among humans (which is, to these weary eyes, rather limited), these debates will, at bottom, have a tiresome familiarity to them. And because each person’s moral commitments are moral commitments, the debates will always have a kind of shout-y quality to them, because while it is easy to see that reasonable people can differ about whether to spend more on movies vs. music, it is really really hard to see that reasonable people can differ about the comparative weight of moral goods like, e.g., caring for the weak vs. leaving people alone (where these conflict, as they often do).

Since I can’t see my way clear to any objective adjudication of competing claims for what the “real” moral interests are, I cannot use that non-existent agreement to determine what the aims of government are, and hence what its scope and limits should be. All I can say is that the vast majority think there should be such a thing, and the vast majority have a pretty clear idea of what they don’t want it to be like (one of the useful outcomes of the Long War that was the 20th century is some clarity about what absolute political evil looks like), and that the things that libertarians care about form a subset of things social democrats care about. One of these things is rule of law as the peaceful means of conflict resolution. Another is electoral accountability of government staff to limit self-dealing. Almost everything that we all agree is important can be found in the common law, and most of the rest of it can be found, expressly or lurkingly implied, in the U.S. constitution. We are not only individuals capable of, and in need of being allowed to engage in, uncoerced, consensual action (call that the “individualist” motif) but we are also, as Hegel observes, communal beings whose sense of identity is partly constituted by our participation in a community. This sense of identity is sustained not only by an experienced relationship to our community, language, history and traditions, but by a relationship to our own government. So assuming that further harms are not emanating from one’s government, a certain measure of patriotism is an appropriate and desirable part of a good life.

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