The View From Poseidonia

I’ve tried this before, I suspect without great success, but let me take a stab again at briefly articulating my political philosophy.

The easy part: push comes to shove, I will almost always agree with the legislative recommendations of the Cato Institute. So I’m a libertarian (or what Will Wilkinson calls a “liberaltarian”) on some level. I am not doctrinaire on this but I think they have the better argument as a rule. Of course Cato policy is rarely available as a genuine political option, so assessing political choices quickly becomes complicated, but the measure is, of the available options, which moves us closer to a world of maximum freedom as a libertarian would understand that word.

What I am not is a “libertarian philosopher” or an economist. This is where people seem to get confused. Most libertarians seem to hold one of two views (sometimes, both simultaneously). The first is that the only defensible policy in any instance is the one that maximizes economic efficiency. Now like libertarians, I am very sensitive to questions of economic efficiency, precisely because so many of non-libertarian persuasion seem to think that the goose keeps laying the golden eggs no matter how cruelly you factory-farm it. Not so. Every policy involves trade-offs, and just because the business community is opposed to something because it adversely affects their interests doesn’t mean that it is good for “ours”. Where I differ from the economistic libertarian is in thinking that sometimes economic efficiency should be sacrificed so that the polity can express symbolic commitments. We should not deceive ourselves that our symbolic interests and our economic interests always dovetail, but sometimes choosing the former over the latter is “worth” doing in a non-economic sense. Much of what liberals like that libertarians do not may come in here: national parks, NASA, employment discrimination law, all of which I favor without for a minute thinking they can or should justify themselves to bean counters. There can be military actions which fall under this heading too, though I will observe a prudent silence about which ones I consider examples of such (most would agree that our involvement in the European theater in World War II was, for example). These are matters of what kind of people we want to be. These similarities make me comfortable with taking on the phrase, that many libertarians have adopted for themselves: classical liberal.

But I am not “a libertarian philosopher”. What does that mean? There is a large contingent of people who self-describe as libertarians who believe in a strong notion of natural rights, which entail that government’s very legitimacy is limited to supporting the kinds of policies Cato would like. This has the consequence that when government does anything outside that orbit, it is not legitimate government action, thus tyranny, and something we have no political obligation to respect or obey. Since I don’t think there are natural rights in the relevant sense, I don’t think that the actions of a democratic government become illegitimate when they stray from what a libertarian would want. Rather, I regard the notion of civic-republican collective self-determination as the bedrock political notion. What justifies this, or any bedrock political notion? Absolutely nothing. Here I am about as far away from my libertarian fellows as imaginable, for the philosophical “foundations” I espy are Rortyan, and hover over an abyss. Only our collective desires, commitments, experiences and traditions “justify” our political conduct, and what justifies them is, nothing. As Wittgenstein said, “here my spade is turned.” The best way into such a view that I know is Gary Gutting’s book Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. I find almost nothing in it with which I disagree, and this is why I say my classical liberalism is also a pragmatic liberalism. And for the advanced course, I can think of nothing more illuminating than the writings of Don Herzog.

The last source of my political thinking is “thinking like a lawyer”. I do not have any particular jurisprudential philosophy, because I find that what jurisprudential philosophers try to do is analogous to what most libertarians try to do: take one of our concerns and elevate it above all the others. Since the only resources I know for determining those concerns are the jurisprudential traditions themselves, I see no basis for preferring one element of them over others invariably. I only ask that when fidelity to legislative intent (others may be more familiar with the term “strict construction”) is at issue, that we get the history right. It’s a bracing and fresh experience which I recommend.

In the end, there is just us, individuals who nonetheless share a community, engaged in a dialogue about what we wish to remain, what we wish to become. Recognizing that means that while the dialogue can sometimes look like an ugly shouting match, there are limits to how far that should go, because in the end, we are all in this together.


3 comments on “The View From Poseidonia

  1. Pliny the Elder says:

    Another problem is, of course, that what counts as economically efficient is problematic. For example, it appears to me, given the health system that has actually evolved (most coverage is employer provided, emergency rooms must treat, etc.) in the U.S. a single payer system would be the most efficient (as I believe the GAO or CBO concluded when considering various Hilary-care options in the early 90s). It is fine to object that we should not have the system that has evolved but that is actually an additional set of arguments that must be spelled out. Yelling “efficiency”, “freedom” or “rights” is fun (we have both done it at different points), but to pretend that yelling somehow settles it is silly (and unpersuasive even in our moronic political system).

  2. Pliny the Elder says:

    I think, however, that the Thiel Fellowship, is a great idea.

  3. skholiast says:

    Between you and Amod Lele, I feel like could more or less sum up my political position with “ditto,” unless I was in one of my X-Files Trust-No-One moods. Of course, we’d probably find all sorts of concrete disagreements once we started drinking, but I gotta say it’s refreshing to read politics that doesn’t think with its kneecap.

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