Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More On Liberty

I am trying to suggest how to talk (or write) like a conservative without being either a half-wit or a self-serving demagogue.

The basic argument for liberty that John Stuart Mill put forth 150 years ago still stands.

One of the ways to best fulfill desires is to put decision-making in the hands of the person who has the most information the least possibility of corruption when it comes to fulfilling those desires. In my case, the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent for making decisions as to what direction my life should go is me.

Every person acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs.

If my life is given over to somebody else to make decisions for me, I can be assured that the agent is somebody who will act to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. It may be the case that he desires that which also tends to fulfill my desires. He may actually desire that which tends to fulfill my desires. However, that is not likely.

This agent – be he a government regulator or a politician, he is going to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. He is going to have his own desires – for sex, for particular past times, for foods, for social status. And he is going to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires given his beliefs. This means that he is going to direct my money and direct my living efforts to doing that which fulfills his desires, not my own – at least where his desires are the most and strongest.

Even if he were ideally concerned about my own welfare, he is not nearly as well informed about what those desires are as I am. He is going to make mistakes that I am far less likely to make. When it comes to deciding which movie to go to, I am willing to bet that nobody can do a better job than I at picking movies that I would like and avoiding movies that I would not like. When it comes to deciding what to eat, what to watch on television, and what to do in my spare time generally, I am the expert, and I am the one who should have the authority to make those decisions.

This does not mean that I do not need protection from those who would fulfill their own desires by doing me harm. However, it is perfectly consistent with a conservative ideology to be quite harsh on those who obtain benefits for themselves by doing harm to others. And I should be prohibited in my attempts to fulfill my own desires from doing so in ways that bring harm to others.

One of the ironies of the current political system is that the Republican Party, which ideologically has been thought of as part devoted to strict preservation of rights and stern responses to those who violate the rights of others, In reality, it has become the political front for those who are eager to gain power and wealth precisely by doing harm to others.

It should be the case that putting poison into the food and water of others is viewed as a crime in all conservative circles. Republicans seeking to avoid the charge of hypocrisy should be taking an extremely stern stand against those who use poison for economic or political gain.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that they have used their political power to remove barriers to using poison for personal or economic gain. They have fought against, rather than for, those laws that have said that poisoning others through air and water pollution is a crime. It has, in effect, fought to make poisoning others a legitimate business practice.

Philosophically, Republicans should be at the forefront of attacking companies that seek profits from poisoning others. It should have the same, harsh, ‘throw the book at them’ attitude towards those who poison for profit as it has towards murderers in general.

The fact that Republicans are not taking a stand against those who poison for profit shows the effects of the Republicans becoming the party of half-wits and self-serving demagogues. The principles that the Republican Party are supposed to stand for have become merely a smoke screen – the smoke and mirrors behind which people do the opposite of what they say should be done and hides their hypocrisy in pure rhetoric

The two major arguments on liberty are still valid 150 years after JS Mill proposed them. Each of us is the most knowledgable person to ask regarding what serves our interests. Each of us is the least corruptible agent when it comes to actually doing what fulfills the most and strongest of our own desires.

There is still good reason to argue for governments that are structured in such a way that its primary function is to allow individuals to apply their superior knowledge and superior incorruptibility to living their own lives.

When governments run lives, there are definite problems to consider.


Sabio Lantz said...

Excellent. Boy , we'd love it if you could come and occassionally write something on a new joint blog:
Libertarian Skeptics

Kevin Currie-Knight said...


Very true. Republicans have long abandoned any free-market or individual liberty stance.

JS Mill's argument from liberty was at once about desire fulfillment being best left in the hands of individuals, and also a utilitarian argument that leaving people free preserves diversity and inventiveness. (He argued for a school infrastructures similar to a free-market system because doing so would mean that different schools could experiment with different methods, making it easier to find the methods that worked the best.)

Another good thinker who articulated the method you write about is economist Thomas Sowell - whose book Knowledge and Decisions makes the economic argument that capitalism works because it lets individuals judge what is best for them based on a price system. Socialism, Keyneianism, etc, do not work as well becasue it puts many decisions in the hands of those far detached from what they are judging on.

(This is also evident in the work of FA Hayek and the Austrian school of economics.)

Anonymous said...

So, where do you draw the line? Is it wrong for the government to force you to pay taxes? Is it wrong to use that money to build infrastructure (that you may or may not use)? Is it wrong for the government to use part of your tax dollars to buy food & medicine for the poor?

Eneasz said...

Hi Kip. Alonzo wrote on this around the middle of Sept '07. Begining at this post and continuing for several posts may address your question. There is, of course, more to say, but it's a start.

Anonymous said...

Actually, this doesn't work in practice, precisely because people have desires which are counter to their own interests.

Real life abounds with examples of people who know better, but can't overwhelm their own desires: the fat person who overeats until they get type 2 diabetes, the pack-a-day smoker who knows they are likely to die early from one of the many possible health complications caused by cigarettes, the teenager who has unprotected sex even though their lives could be effectively ruined by either VD or an unexpected child; these things happen all the time, and those are just the first three which come to mind.

An external agent, it is true, will have their own desires, but in exchange they will be able to see these self-destructive desires in perspective from outside, rather than feeling them directly. It's a lot easier to plan a healthy diet for someone else than it is to do it for yourself, for example, because you don't feel the other person's desire for cheeseburgers and candy.

By the way: there is plenty of evidence (and increasingly persuasive, too) that the actors in markets do not act with intelligent self-interest -- there was a recent interestingmedical study which suggested that successful male traders will more or less inevitably suffer hormonal imbalance and begin losing their grip on risks and responsibility, for example. Given that the fundamental assumption behind the supremacy of the free market as a model is flawed and impossible, what do you suggest?

Kevin Currie-Knight said...


People have obviously drawn the line in different places, and Mill was quite sketchy on where his line was drawn (at times appearing libertarian and other times, appearing to support a more robust state).

For Mill, the question was not whether government was a good thing, but whether government should hold policies which interfere with societal heterogeneity or individuality.

For many libertarians, like Sowell, Hayek, and Bastiat before, the answer to your question is something like: "It is wrong for government to take taxes when the purpose of those taxes is anything other than providing for defense of citizens." In other words, extracting taxes becomes theft (rather than a necessary provision for the common good) when those taxes are used to go beyond defending an individual's negative liberty or property.

For Mill, that was not the question. I suspect that Mill has already written on the morality of governmental giving to the poor, but I think his answer would have been that doing that is not immoral because the policy does nothing to get in the way of individuality.

Kevin Currie-Knight said...


I think it depends on what we mean by "their interests." Do we mean "their interets as in what interests them," or "their interests if they were to reflect as much as we have about them?"

If we suggest that it is in the pack-a-day's smoker not to smoke, then the obvious retort is: "Not according to the pack--a-day somoker! Otherwise, she wouldn't smoke!"

If we suggest that it is in the pack-a-day smoker's interst to smoke, then the obvious retort is: "She is acting under an addiction. Her true interest is in staying alive and not getting cancer, and she is just clouded in her judgment."

Thus, it depends on what we mean by "x's interest." If we mean "what they are interested in," then we must take their word for it. if we mean "what their interest would be if they knew what was good for them," then we may discount their word.

The problem, for libertarians such as myself, is that if we suggest that individuals often don't know what is in their interest (or are mistaken about their interests) than we are setting a dangerous precedent of letting y act on x's behalf (where y is generally the government and x is a private citizen.)

It doesn't take much imagination to imagine, that if we grant the government the power to decide what is in y's best interest, then the government might decide that it is in my interest to be protected from my desire to protest the government. They could easily make the case that it is in my interest not to own a gun, be able to consume alcohol, look at pornography, or read books extolling certain opinions.

The question for me is: how can we grant that sometimes, others know better what is in an actor's interest, while at the same time protecting against the following of this to bad conclusions?

Hume's Ghost said...

Human Events - a "conservative" publication - did a list of most harmful books a few years ago. On Liberty got honorable mention. So did the Origin of Species and Descent of Man.

Anonymous said...

Kevin> "People have obviously drawn the line in different places, and Mill was quite sketchy on where his line was drawn (at times appearing libertarian and other times, appearing to support a more robust state)."

What would Desire Utilitarianism lead us to think is the best option? Or, rather, what would moral agents with good desires that utilize Desire Utilitarianism think is the best option?

Kevin Currie-Knight said...

Hume's Ghost,

Thanks for the link. I was shocked to see On LIberty in the conservatives most harmful book list. It is proof, I guess, that conservatives as they are today do not care about individual liberty one bit. They are not the party of Goldwater/Reagan, but of GW Bush.

That is sad.

opit said...

Aid a foreigner's confusion on American abstruse torturing of syntax. When did the French Revolution's loud cry "Liberte" become a "Conservative" meme rather than the "Liberal" desire to use government as a source of infrastructure for private enterprise while curtailing robber baron monopolists from raping the public purse ?

Kristopher said...


the confustion comes from the two party system which lumps conflicting goals into the same party. think of it as the alliances of convenience between parties with conflicting goals to create governments in parliamentary systems except they all pretended they were in the same party and none of their views conflicted.

the conservative party is pro buisnesses which wants to poison you. christians that want to tell you how to live. and libertarians that dont want to be poisoned or told how to live. and free market purists. the federalists, the hawkish nationalists, and the anti-governement anarchists. it is a marriage of convenience not love.

the democrats are a conglomeration of your socialist workers party, the green party, and civil rights movement. people who want to regulate "vices" of the non-religous sort .i.e tell you how to live. (smoking, drinking, violent movies, and the like) and libertarians that dont want people to tell them who to marry or what "vices" they can enjoy i.e. how to live. they are also the doves, and internationalists (U.N. and the like). and the robber barons (not the ones that poison you, the ones that siphon money from governement programs)

niether of them can decide which one is for free-trade and which one is for protectionism that keeps going back and forth

the libertarians dont fit well in either party. but in the republican party they get to use the name libertarian. In the democratic party they use the term civil rights activists, this ensures they dont work together well since they identify as different groups

the christians and the anti-vice people would get along better if they weren't in conflicting parties as well since they both generally agree on how you should live your life. i am gratefull they have been seperated.

robber barons are represented very well by both parties but usally different barons that are at war with each other. who end up funding alot of crazy stuff they dont care about when they are buying their respective politicians

thats why conserving the status qou, nationalism, liberty, theocracy, war, and robber barons go together in he republican corner

and progress/regress, the nanny state, civil liberties, education, robber barons and secularism go into he democrat corner.

most libertarians say they are economically conservative (pro free market anti social programs) but becuase it is also the pro robber barons it gets muddled...while at the same time that they are socially progressive (pro choice, gay rights, anti-racism) and i think this makes up most of the independent voters.

were at about 33% republican 33%democrat and 25% independents that have to choose between the two options. the other 9% dont care.

the independents cannot make their own party becuase it would split the votes between which ever party more closely adheres to their beliefs and themselves assuring the opposite party wins. but the president is primarily elected by wooing indipendent voters so they have alot of power in national elections but get ignored in non-election years.

Kristopher said...

of course that is a characature of events but it give you the idea of why "libete" is a conservative meme instead of a progressive meme