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Hark, What from My Ivory Tower Do I Espy?

December 5th, 2006 · 4 Comments

My passing mention below of the “line running through Mill and Rawls” gets me, along with Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey, called out by Ezra for going on about lots of abstruse philosomaphy in the course of the ongoing “liberaltarian” discussion. We’ve adverted to certain theoretical shared ground as a reason for thinking some kind of alliance might be feasible, but—Silly Will! Silly Brink!—liberals and libertarians have all sorts of disagreement about actual policy issues.

Well, sure. If we already had substantially the same policy views, we wouldn’t need to be talking about an “alliance” because we’d already be one wacky Amalgam Universe political movement, and I’d be pondering the legacy of Ayn Sinclair’s Jurgis Shrugged in the pages of The Reasonable Prospect. But given that disagreement, if you want to know how intractable it is, it does seem like taking a step up the ladder of theory might be a good way of finding out, because it will give an indication of whether we’ve got enough of an overlapping language, value set, or conceptual framework for some kind of fruitful collaboration. In other words: Are we Catholics and Protestants or Catholics and Nizari Ismaili Shi’ites?

Ezra seems to just find this weird. Will, for instance, wrote a paper in which he argued that the current structure of Social Security is illiberal. But liberals like Social Security, so that can’t be right! And I guess it can’t, if liking Social Security is some kind of irreducible, brute commitment, like “liking broccoli.” If, on the other hand, it’s the upshot of a set of more basic values, then presumably it should matter if a policy that promotes some of those values tends to undermine others you hold. Maybe Will weights things like policy transparency more highly than Ezra, relative to other things, and so Ezra remains unpersuaded. But if they’ve got a sufficiently overlapping set, they can at least have the conversation and inquire into what arrangement might achieve ends they both recognize, even if they rank them differently.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Will Wilkinson // Dec 5, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    Exactly! Thanks, Julian.

  • 2 Grant Gould // Dec 6, 2006 at 7:11 am

    I agree in principle that one ought to “tak[e] a step up the ladder of theory” to chart such disagreements. But if there’s one thing clear from blogospheric libertarian discussions, it’s that libertarians are a phenomenally big tent philosophically. I found myself defending moral nihilism recently on Catallarchy in that blog’s perennial consequentialists-versus-deontologists all-amateur smackdown.

    One of the appeals of the libertarian outlook is that you can reach it from a great many different and diverse sets of moral premises. You don’t have to say, “no consequentialists allowed, you people are all damned dirty relativists anyway” as in effect a great many conservatives do (pace their amusing flirtation with virtue ethics), or chuck all the natural-rights types out the door because they can’t manage to see clear to your tax policies as some liberals are prone to. The less authority and structure you want, the less people have to see eye-to-eye on the purpose and justification of such authority and structure.

    Libertarians may be prone to grand philosophical statements (perhaps even for reasons unrelated to a dangerous fixation on Ayn Rand — O brave new world!) but of the political movements out there it is perhaps the one best suited to a wide but thin approach to ethics. We might legitimately want to deeply probe the State’s moral status when it’s romping about shooting folks, but the State doesn’t need deep and consistent justifications to sit on its ass, to be insignificant, to be absent.

  • 3 joe o'malley // Dec 6, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Liberals have a policy commitment to social security. It isn’t something that a deep reading of Mills will convince them out of. They have already done the balancing of interests. Liberals like social insurance programs and don’t consider taxes to be a social injustice.

  • 4 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Dec 7, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    I’d be pondering the legacy of Ayn Sinclair’s Jurgis Shrugged in the pages of The Reasonable Prospect

    Well, that’s certainly the best independent clause that my eyes have seen today.