Social Forces and the Ideology of Wishful Thinking

Will Wilkinson and ED Kain team up for “social forces” argument against libertarianism. What exactly is this “social forces” argument? Distilled to its essence, it’s the contention that impersonal structural impediments create a redistribution problem. Now, in one sense, I’m in agreement; there is a redistribution problem, but–as I see it–it’s not exactly the same problem as identified by Wilkinson/Kain.

The Wilkinson/Kain interpretation, starting with Wilkinson:

(i) The Liberal vs Conservative debate over poverty/wealth

liberals tend to explain both poverty and wealth in terms of luck and the influence of social forces while conservatives tend to explain poverty and wealth in terms of effort and individual initiative

(ii) Libertarians side with the conservatives in this debate

What about libertarians? According to Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, their patterns of moral sentiment and judgment make libertarians look a lot like liberals who care a great deal about liberty and not very much for suffering. Like liberals, libertarians don’t put very much emphasis on what Haidt calls the “binding foundations” of the moral sense–obedience to authority, in-group loyalty, and a sensitivity to moralized purity and disgust–which play a large role in conservative moral sentiment and judgment. This makes libertarians look like a lot like especially freedom-loving liberals with slightly hard hearts.

But, having lived most of my adult life among them, experience tells me that when it comes to the explanation of poverty and wealth libertarians are close cousins to conservatives. It’s my view that this shared sense of robust agency and individual responsibility for success and failure is the psychological linchpin of “fusionism”–that this commonality in disposition has made the long-time alliance between conservatives and libertarians possible, despite the fact that libertarians are almost identical to liberals in their unconcern for the conservative binding foundations.

(iii) There is a larger structural problem that counters a robust individual agency(although there is still room for some degree of individual agency)

my own drift from right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal has a lot to do with issues around the conditions for robust agency and the role of broad socio-economic forces in establishing those conditions, or not. I’ve come to accept, for example, that diffuse cultural forces, such as racism or sexism or nationalism or intergenerational poverty, can deprive an individual of her rightful liberty without any single person doing anything to violate her basic rights. This takes me a long way toward standard liberalism. But I find that my gut nevertheless leans right on issues of personal responsibility.

(iv) This structural problem is the root of the redistribution problem. The resolution to this problem demands both a degree of material and psychological assistance(within limits)

In plenty of circumstances in which people are suffering due to no fault of their own, I think they need both material assistance and the conviction that they can improve their lives if they really try.

Now Kain:

(i) Restate the premise of the liberal vs conservative debate over poverty. Affirm that libertarians take the conservative side.

Whereas libertarians and conservatives attribute success and failure to the personal strengths and flaws of individuals, liberals see a vast array of social forces, luck, and other things outside of the direct control of individuals as playing a more important role in the success or failure of individuals. Thus, for a liberal poverty is structural and for a libertarian or a conservative it is the result of human shortcomings.

(ii) Libertarian affirmation of the conservative position is an example of “vulgar libertarianism”

I find the libertarian rejection of structural and broad social forces shaping success and failure peculiar. For one thing, the most valuable insights of libertarianism are bound quite closely to the idea that special interests work with government to distort the playing field and protect certain interests and people and corporations over others. The free market creates a more level playing field, ideally, that allows for fewer distortions of power and more equality of opportunity.

And yet many libertarians only take that critique so far, and at the end of the day we find ourselves still with a discussion about winners and losers. It doesn’t make sense to craft a broad social critique of the state and its interactions with society and then turn around and pretend those factors play no role in the success or failure of you and me. This is what Kevin Carson describes as “vulgar libertarianism.”

(iii) Libertarians don’t take their theories seriously enough. Libertarianism demands that “social forces” be taken into account. So we reject the conservative “rugged individualist” interpretation and embrace the Wilkinson version of individual agency. In particular, we should be concerned about a safety net to account for market failure.

Fortunately, I don’t think that strain of thought exists in anywhere near so broad a constituency as the winners-vs-losers brand of rugged individualism does on the right. Most liberals, I believe, understand the importance of self-reliance, hard work, and making the crutches of the state as unnecessary as possible. Are there anti-growth, anti-market forces at work on the left? Of course there are. But these tend to have a very small influence over public policy.

Meanwhile, the goal of libertarian-leaning liberals everywhere should be making markets work for ordinary people. To do that you need to couple free markets with a strong, efficient safety net that rewards risk and hard work but doesn’t let people fall through the cracks. A market-based, bottom-up liberalism should still embrace the reality that market failure is both necessary and causes a great deal of pain. The role of the state is ameliorating that pain for ordinary workers – not bailing out or protecting the wealthy and well-connected.

Now, I’m occasionally accused of being at “definitional war” with political reality. This criticism pertains to my oft refusal to accept the “accepted” political categories. But there is good reason to refuse them. And,frankly, the Wilkinson/Kain interpretation of the redistribution problem demonstrates the peril of accepting them. That’s because the premise of the their argument, to begin with, is utterly bunk. Namely: that the conservative position regarding poverty/wealth/markets=rugged individualism, or more precisely, rejects any consideration of “social forces.”

I’ve composed many a post outlining the incongruence of philosophical conservatism with “free markets.”1 The raison d’etre of (modern) Conservatism proper, as outlined by Russell Kirk, for example, is a “republican” form of government to serve as a bulwark against the tide of change from “social forces.” Conservatism accepts the market, but not the “free market,” not in the libertarian sense. This should be clear from reading Kirk(indeed for the likes of Kirk, a free market is a threat to the necessary transcendence that must underlie a stable social order). Conservatives use the phrase “free market” but there is an implicit social context behind the conservative usage of that term. The market must exist within defined social limits and can only function properly within these defined limits. Indeed, if it goes outside these limits then it can be a social force for structural poverty–for example, in weakening the foundation of the traditional family.

Therefore, we actually find that both liberals and conservatives view poverty/wealth/markets, in terms of an individual agency problem, as a function of social context. 2

So, the initial premise of the Wilkinson/Kain interpretation that views left/right as “social context vs atomism” is not correct.

The Liberal vs Conservative debate over poverty/wealth =False Premise #1

Thus, obviously, if Premise #1 is not correct, then Premise #2 becomes problematic. Now one would have to show that libertarians are in agreement with conservatives over the necessary and proper social context for individual agency. But equivalence between conservatives and libertarians on this matter is demonstratively false. For example: the drug war, contractual arrangement between consenting adults(whether prostitution or “marriage” between same-sex adults, etc), immigrant labor.

Libertarians side with the conservatives =False Premise #2

So we have dispensed with the assumptions that (i) conservatism with respect to poverty/wealth/markets is atomistic and rugged individualist and (ii) that libertarianism is equivalent to the actual conservative view of individual agency and social context.

This leaves to address a dangling claim of sorts: Do hold libertarians hold atomistic and rugged individualist ideas often attributed to conservatives but not actually held by conservatives? That is, is libertarianism, in terms of it’s individualism, defined by an atomistic social analysis built over: “libertarians attribute success and failure to the personal strengths and flaws of individuals.”

I suppose one could appeal to Rand’s objectivist ethics to make this case, but even I would think that to be a vulgar reading of Rand. After all, Rand certainly didn’t invent the concept of the “American Dream.” When I think of libertarian social analysis, I tend to start with Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer and Jean-Baptiste Say from the radical French liberal tradition.

There is an oft asked question concerning the origin of libertarianism. We can find the hint of the ideas historically embedded in virtually all cultures in one form or another, but certainly we would likely start with Étienne de La Boétie and the French Physiocratic tradition. But, as a social/political theory proper, it is the French Liberal tradition, specifically the social analysis that stems from liberal class theory, that serves as its modern origin.

To me, it is absurd to equate libertarian social analysis with late nite American Dream infomercials.

Libertarian Social analysis of poverty/wealth/markets is atomistic and rugged individualist =False Premise #3. Possible Notable Exceptions include: The biased sample of Will Wilkinson’s DC cocktail circuit and DC libertarian think tank employment.

Libertarian social analysis is fundamentally concerned with the social context of human individual agency. So much so, in fact, that the actual historical divisions in libertarianism, e.g., social vs individualist, are a direct function of bitter disputes regarding social context and human agency. Joseph Déjacque, for example, is famous(well at least famous in hard core libertarian circles) for accusing Pierre-Joseph Proudhon of being “liberal, but not libertarian.” This is a familiar charge that has been often repeated by “social anarchists” against “individualists,” calling them “liberals.” It is an accurate charge to the extent that individualists accept “liberal institutions” of civil society that includes such things as private property and markets. But the term liberal, in this context, is meant as a slur of sorts against an identity of the “petty bourgeoisie.” Carson’s use of the term “vulgar libertarianism” is actually a criticism of identifying the “petty bourgeoisie” with the constraints of American conservatism.

The point here is that libertarianism, as evidenced by it’s internal divisions, very much takes it’s social analysis foundations seriously. However,theses divisions are not indicative of weakness or wrongness of the theory. That is to say, “vulgar libertarianism” is no more of a problem for libertarianism than the problem of “petty bourgeoisie” is a problem for libertarianism.

Vulgar Libertarianism is a disqualifying factor exposing the relevant limits of libertarian social analysis =False Statement

At this point, what I have attempted to refute is the Wilkinson/Kain logical case against any libertarian objection to a Wilkinson/Kain moral claim for the necessity of some version of a redistributive state.

So Wilkinson’s appeal to racism and sexism, and Kain’s appeal to market failure, are not actually in the clear in terms of escaping a libertarian critique.

Wilkinson appears to have now adopted a progressive view of civil society, that is, a view that assigns a necessary role for the State to correct the oppressive tendencies of civil society. One of the important contributions of the historical deconstructive scholarship of Thaddeus Russell, particularly with respect to his work, “Renegade History of the United States,” is to punch serious holes in Wilkinson’s cultural impediment argument. Eternal vigilance often emanates from the bowels of civil society and not from the upper echelons of legislative chambers or Washington think tanks. No doubt that racism and sexism are components of a social structure impediment, but, more often than not, the State is an enforcer of the Status quo, and not liberating agents. You certainly not going to find “11 Freedoms That Drunks, Slackers, Prostitutes And Pirates Pioneered And The Founding Fathers Opposed” in the official state textbooks.

Kain’s mistakenly equates market failure with “winners and losers.” In the neoclassical sense, market failure may or not make the case for government agency, but this government agency has nothing to do with “redistribution.” In the classical sense, there is an economic analysis concerned with the flow of economic rents to factors of production, and the taxation of persistent economic rent in terms of certain factors(for example, land) serving as a basis for a “redistributive government agency.” In the classical liberal sense, the taxation of economic rent is the fiscal source of government.

Kain, like many others, totally turns economics(the study of political economy) on its head with an argument for a role of government agency to subsidize economic rent. This to me is obscene, and any moral argument to legitimize this serves as the moral foundation for plunder. This can be demonstrated.

For example, consider Rawls. One of the gripes I have about those who rely on Rawls–for example, Wilkinson–is that Rawls significantly modified his theory of Justice in his later years. The later Rawls was (i)public reason (ii) overlapping consensus and (iii) “propertarian democracy.” In a very real sense, the “social justice” rationale of government agency in the US in the 90s followed the later Rawls. The “welfare state” was reformed and an aggressive program to subsidize home ownership–as part of the ownership society– was kicked into high gear.

The results have been catastrophic. I contend that subsidizing economic rent is a grave error; but, in particular, I contend that subsidizing land and home ownership is an utterly disastrous policy(economic rent from land should be a primary fiscal source of any government agency; government agencies should not serve a moral objective to subsidize this). The extent the later Rawls viewed Property-owning democracy as guaranteeing a widespread bulwark against concentration of economic and financial power only demonstrates how wrong he was. A moral objective of a Property-owning democracy, enforced by government agency, has given us the greatest oligarchical concentration of financial power and control in human history.

This leads to the actual “redistribution problem.” How to reverse the concentrated economic power enabled and legitimized by moral claims of social and economic justice.

1 For example: No Bridge Between the Libertarian and Conservative Worldviews

2 A more accurate and thorough contemporary social analysis of “left/right” places the debate over individual agency within the context of communitarian recognition.