Coherence, Not Purity

Alexander’s McCobin essay, Let’s Reject the Purity Test, which is part of this month’s Cato Unbound issue, “Where Next? The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism,” is a more or less an argument for unbridled incoherence in libertarianism. Of course, what I call incoherence, McCobin calls “purity.” But these two things are not the same. An insistence on a coherent foundation of a rational framework is a necessary condition for the profitable use of said rational framework as an an analytical and methodological tool. Otherwise, the framework is useless and merely serves to obfuscate matters.

Let us be concrete. This whole business, in part, stems from the argument whether “classical liberalism” is consistent with “distributive justice.” Obviously, if we appeal to Rawls or Harsanyi, i.e., “modern or “high” liberalism, claims of distributive justice are not methodologically inconsistent with liberalism. That is, “distributive justice” does not necessarily introduce incoherence into the liberal methodology(NOTE: if we listened to the distributive justice claims of the communitarians and tried to justify such via vis liberalism, then this would introduce a high degree of incoherence). Both Rawls and Harsanyi operate in accordance to the liberal methodology, which is to use an initial state of agent non-obligation(in this case, “a veil of ignorance”) to rationally deduce agent political obligation. The distinction between, say, Locke’s “property bundle” and Rawl’s “primary goods” is a matter of degree, not kind.

However, as I have noted in my previous posts, the liberal methodology cannot satisfactorily normalize our degree of “primary goods.” Yes, we know that the ends of the State are these primary goods, but the exact composition of this bundle is a point of contention. One of my insistent points is that libertarianism in no way sheds any normative light on the proper constitution of this bundle–that is, the ends of the State. To try to use it methodologically in this manner to normalize a proper ends of the State is a perversion. This perversion applies to whatever proper ends argued–Lockean or Rawlsian.

We see the fruits of this futile endeavor at Cato Unbound this month. These disputes over a “proper, normative” version of property rights, that devolve into a thousand arguments over “absolutism,” could persist for 50 years without resolution. Hell, the disputes could persist for a hundred years. It is an academic full employment act. It is this type of irresolution that prompts the likes of McCobin to throw up his hands and declare “No Purity Tests.”

But this is the wrong reaction/conclusion. Our normative problem has a relatively straightforward practical resolution. In liberal democracy, the “primary goods,” the ends of the State, are subjected to a democratic process1. “Limited government” is a meaningless and non-obligatory term within the liberal paradigm. The relevant concept is “constrained government.” Yes, the ends of the State are subjected to a democratic process, but these ends cannot cross an easily identifiable boundary–the Total State. The Total State simply means the State, as an artificial construct, serving as both the originator and enforcer of compliance. This condition is most starkly exemplified by a “Security State.”

To me, “Where Next? The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism” debate is an attempt to zombify a corpse. There is a highly defensible argument that liberalism is effectively dead. The only relevant discussion now is the proper means of disposal: burial or cremation. Simply, when the Executive declares unilateral power to declare anyone “fair game” outside the bounds of due process–and this power is backed up by the most unaccountable intelligence and military complex in the history of world civilization–then liberalism and its legal underpinning are dissolved. Both “classic” and “high” liberals should be in agreement that this condition thus marks a point of dissolution of political obligation. That this condition seems to be irrelevant to the majority of the “liberal professional political class” is an indication of the rottenness of the system. Indeed, the problem of liberal reform, I would argue, is a primary focus of the libertarian methodology. That is, libertarianism, as a political theory, is not so much concerned with normalizing or legitimizing moral claims of political obligation but rather with a critical scrutiny of said moral claims. And there is good reason for this, a good reason why libertarianism is, in fact, a departure from liberalism and not just a synonym for a “classic” genus of it.

As a demonstration, we can once again consider the Zwolinski and Tomasi essay, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism.” As mentioned above, this essay has triggered endless rounds of debate over property absolutism adjudicated from priestly interpretations of the philosophy texts. But this is the wrong way to approach it. David Friedman approaches it from a better direction by insisting that Zwolinski and Tomasi refuse to define “Social Justice.” However, I would contend that the problem is not with their inability to define “Social Justice” but rather with their definition of “marginalized agents,” the ones who are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of the Social Justice Ends. As I discussed in my post, “The Social Justice of a Police State,” it is the marginalized who take the brunt of the Police State. Zwolinski and Tomasi, in response to Friedman, clarified that the “poor” are not really the poor per se. There are obligations attached to a moral claim of social justice. To qualify, you have to be willing to compete within the system. But this restriction, one that imposes an obligation on agents, changes the argument from a normative argument over property rights absolutism to a positive argument over the artificiality of political economy, since compliance to this thing, ex post, has now been made a condition for a social justice claim. And it is here where libertarianism and its positive methodology becomes relevant. If we can demonstrate–which we can using Public Choice–the high degree of artificiality of political economy, we can ask a simple question: why should compliance/obedience to this highly artificial construct be made a condition for social justice?

Even worse for Zwolinski: his claims that “lazy people” are not worthy of social justice opens himself up to the thorough rebuke by citing Thaddeus Russell’s recent historical exegesis of the relationship between “the American work ethic” and artificial American Political Economic Ends. The lesson from Russell’s groundbreaking positive historical scholarship: (1) work ethic often means compliance with political economic ends (2) do not conflate “laziness” with non-compliance (3) most of the personal freedoms we enjoy today originate from the defiance of non-compliant actors.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians, or at least the contingent represented by the likes of Zwolinksi, can deny the US is a Police State, deny the disqualifying artificiality of political economy(compliance then not being a condition of social justice but rather a condition of enslavement) and deny the historical importance of non-compliance in the face of moral claims of political obligation, but I would suggest that such a litany of denial disqualifies them from occupying a space in a coherent libertarian tradition.

What is this coherent libertarian tradition? Libertarianism inherits and derives from liberalism but it is not liberalism. The inheritance part is the view of the State as an artificial construct. The departure is the rejection of this artificial construct as a compliance mechanism. Indeed, if we historically allude to the original use of the term “libertarian”, it rejected both the State AND the liberal property bundle as artificial.

Frankly, it is really only in the United States, with the “individualist” tradition, that you found any great rooting of sympathy for the liberals ends of compliance: property. And it is the United States, in the 20th century, where we find libertarianism to somehow become associated with “classic liberalism.” A libertarian dispute over whether private property is a thing to be naturally complied with is an argument within a libertarian tradition that can be argued coherently between social and individualist anarchists. However, to say that libertarianism must admit both an acceptance of and a rejection of political obligation renders it utterly incoherent. Libertarianism then would more less admit anything as a valid argument. “Liberty as a political value” results in an endless array of point-counterpoint, “The libertarian argument for abortion” vs “The Libertarian case for pro-life,” The Libertarian case for immigration vs the libertarian case for restricted immigration,” The Libertarian case for individual mandate vs the libertarian case against,” The libertarian case for invasion of Iraq vs the Libertarian case for non-interventionism,” “The Libertarian case of Mitt Romney as the true Libertarian vs The Libertarian case for Mitt Romney as a Neoconservative fascist,” “The Libertarian case for Barack Obama vs the Libertarian case of Barack Obama as a commie bastard,” on an on, ad infinitum. Liberty as a political value will turn libertarian into a dirty word in the same way liberal has become one.

Outside of academia, “liberal” is a ubiquitous accusation that few will actually claim identity with. The irony is that US politics is dominated by communitarian politics. Communitarians despise and reject liberalism and hurl that word, “liberal,” as a political insult against one another. Liberty as a political value, which in our political context, means communitarian recognition, will attach the same fate to “libertarian:” an accusation officially relegated to the academic texts of a professional class.

The “Purity Test” means we have no normative case for Utopia. The “Coherence Test” means we do have a positive case for Dystopia.

1 Interestingly, form Public Choice Theory, the liberal state, in a sense, behaves “normally” when it is not particularly rational to vote, given the public goods problem of voting. Only in the case of obvious reform would it perhaps be “rational” to vote. The democratic process, then–in light of political rent-seeking–is more of a corrective action, or a constraint mechanism.

Julian Assange vs David Horowitz

Slavoj Zizek and David Horowitz were the guests for the second episode of Assange’s “The World Tomorrow.” The episode is particularly revealing because Horowitz is essentially maneuvered by Assange to argue his left/right blather in a broader liberty vs authoritarian paradigm. Stripped of the DoubleThink facade, Horowitz’s argument for American Exceptionalism reveals a truly evil underpinning. When Assange points out the perverse US Military propagandistic expropriation of Jefferson’s “Eternal Vigiliance is the Price of Liberty”1–the US Military interprets eternal vigilance to mean a total surveillance State–Horowitz responds with brutal honesty. The human experience is characterized by a condition of total war. Peace can only be achieved by intimidation via a strong State. Would you rather this “strong State” be the US or “our enemies.” Unfortunately, due to subversive efforts of an “international left,” which has undermined the ability of the US to wage total war against its enemies(read: thwarted the military hegemony doctrine promoted by the Neoconservative Project for a New American Century), we now have to live with the necessary consequences of a total surveillance State. When Assange rhetorically asked Horowitz what then limits this type of State, Horowitz essentially shrugs his shoulders and responds with, “nothing.” Assange, the radical libertarian, then interjects that a free market in government is what can limit the State.

If American Exceptionalism continues to be the ruling ideology, the “world tomorrow” will be a scary place.

1 Of course, this phrase is usually erroneously attributed to Jefferson. The more historically accurate attribution would be to credit Wendell Phillips.

In Praise of Lazy Surfers, Stoners, Junkies & Freaks

Seems so sick to the hypocrite norm
Running their boring drills
But we are an elite race of our own
The stoners, junkies, and freaks

Are you happy? I am, man.
Junkhead Alice in Chains

Recently, while persusing Rational Review, I noticed this essay,Then and Now: The Thatcherite Legacy of Totalitarian Plutocracy, by Sean Gabb. I thought the piece quite interesting since it sort of echoed my last post(libertarianism vs libertarianism). We simply replace Reagan with Thatcher and there you have it. But Gabb’s piece was a little more practical and a bit more specific. Gabb defends the british working class against charges of laziness by excoriating the highly artificial political economy wrought by the Thatcherite policy regime. Gabb more or less rhetorically asks why the working class should be obligated(or demonstrate an allegiance) to the competitive terms of this highly artificial, plutocratic political economy?

We can apply Gabb’s insight to the current “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” debate regarding distributive justice. I noticed David Friedman has posted additional replies to his original rejoinder. Friedman, in part, asked what I had asked in my original post, “The Social Justice of the Police State,” in regards to Zwolinski’s rather contrived definition of “the poor” that excluded the “non-working.” Zwolinski responded with an admission that “concern for the poor” all along has been “a sloppy way of characterizing social justice.” Zwolinski admits what I had pointed out in my original post: “concern for the poor” doesn’t really mean “concern for the poor.’ Or as he puts it: “poverty as such will be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having a valid claim of social justice.” Zwolinski further writes:

Some people will be poor but have no such claim—lazy surfers who are poor simply because they choose not to work, for example. Others will not be poor but will have a legitimate claim of social justice—those, perhaps, whose opportunity to live according to their religious beliefs is unfairly restricted by political institutions. There’s more to social justice than ensuring that people have enough money, and this, in our opinion, is an area in which the classical liberal tradition simultaneously shines and nevertheless still has some important work to do.

Zwolinksi still doesn’t nail down his definition of what properly qualifies as a “social justice claim.” Perhaps by his fourth or fifth response, driven by a skilled socratic method, he would finally get around to properly defining(or conceding) the definition. But I will save you the drama. What he is saying is this: if you choose to compete, whether you are able to or not, you are worthy of a social justice claim. If you choose not to compete, you forfeit any claim to social justice.

But Zwolinski’s definiton(and this is what he is actually saying, notwithstanding his inability–or refusal–to clearly state it) injects Gabb’s insight into the equation. If the competitive context is highly artificial and skewed toward plutocracy, what obligation or allegiance should any rational agent give to this thing? My argument would be to point out it is a perverted methodological misuse of libertarianism to use it to normalize political obligation. The proper use of it would be a positive examination of the given context that is normatively claiming moral obligation.

Frankly, I can reduce all this hypothetical, philosophical “blah, blah, blah” back and forth to a simple question and answer. Do you think the US Government is a Police State(in other words, a highly artificial political economic structure)? If you do, then obviously the BHL paradigm of social justice reduces to allegiance to the Police State as a condition of a social justice claim. If you deny that the US is a Police State, then the argument shifts to a positive debate regarding the artificiality of the political economy. If you make certain concessions about fundamental liberal violations, then the argument shifts to one about the possibility of reform/correction.

Personally, I would argue that any defense of the current artificiality of political economy would have a difficult time against a libertarian critique. I would also reject any claims of committing a logical fallacy because I am requiring you to prove that the US is not a police state. I think any rational agent would have to concede that in today’s context this is a legitimate question. Also note I am not positing violations against some Randian or Rothbardian NAP as evidence of a police state. Quite the contrary, I am a Hayekian and a liberal. I don’t see any conflict between the “welfare state” and liberalism if we restrict “welfare redistribution” to planning for competition. My definition of “liberal violation” is the classic historical liberal definition of it: the State as an artificial construct–that is, a compliance mechanism–serving as both the ends and means of compliance. Dialectically, this is most starkly evidenced by a “Security State.”

It would also behoove me to pit Sean Gabb against Matt Zwolinski in another relevant topic. Zwolinsky is noted for emphasizing the necessary role of a professional academic class to promulgate “liberty.” Gabb is perhaps best noted for his work(at least, it’s what I know him best for), “How English Liberty was Created by Accident and Custom–And then Destroyed by Liberals.” Gabb’s argument is that what we call “liberalism” was a product of anarchic custom. The later efforts of a professional academic/philosophical class to provide a normative foundation for it served only to destroy it. In particular, Gabb assails “British Utilitarianism,” the supposed foundation of “classical liberalism,” as the downfall of liberalism.

At the very least, Gabb’s paper should serve as a cautionary tale regarding the role the professional class plays in “promoting” liberty. Our modern experience only serves to reinforce this. It can be argued that the 2nd resurrection of the “classical liberal tradition,” represented by the “Chicago School,” served to underwrite our current condition of a financial hegemony of plutocratic totalitarianism(the legacies of both Thatcher and Reagan). By some’s count that might constitute “strike two.” Strike Three might very well be the likes of Zwolinsky denying the “Police State(the crooked umpire)” and normalizing the necessity of you to swing at Strike Three.

Admittedly, I’m not much of a philosopher. Although I don’t reject philosophy, I think a pertinent critique against it is that as a discipline, it is supposed to be primarily concerned with “what is the good life.” But by the time you get to political philosophy, this decision of the good life is usually taken out of your hands. The good life for you is usually erased by some greater moral claim of obedience. Liberalism at least puts political obligation up against an agent rational calculation. Generally, liberalism, whether “high/modern” or “classical,” allows space for individual agents to decide for themselves the “good life,” even within the limits of political obligation. But reading Zwolinski refer to “lazy surfers” disqualifies him from even being a liberal. No, I’m not making an argument that “surfers” should have their lifestyles subsidized. However, I am making an argument that agents who live their lives outside the approval zone(“moral judgements”) of Matt Zwolinski should not be penalized for it.1

But then again the beauty of scholarship, the redemption of it, can be illustrated by,say, Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United States,” or Jeff Riggenbach’s “In Praise of Decadence.” In both works, we find ample demonstration that the source of liberty does not rest in the moral judgements of a professional class represented by the likes of Matt Zwolinski. Rather, the source of liberty resides in the actions of people who don’t officially count according to Zwolinski. In the end, your local pot dealer represents more liberty than the entire professional libertarian class put together. You study philosophy to develop a bullshit detector against the moral claims of political philosophers…

1 Particularly, in a police state, the decision to live a life outside the “approved” bounds can incur a heavy cost…

Libertarianism vs Libertarianism

The distinction between libertarianism and liberalism is something that warrants repeating. Libertarianism, as a political theory, is primarily concerned with a critique of the political economy of plunder vis a vis the State.1 Libertarianism, in this sense, is a positive science. It attempts to explain what we see. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a normative theory–rooted in social contract theory–that attempts to justify the degree rational agents should consent to political obligation.

The standard liberal methodology is to propose a rational calculation from some hypothetical initial condition(an agent detached from any bounds of obligation), be it “the State of Nature,” “the initial bargaining position,” “the veil of ignorance,” etc. But there has never been any agreement or consensus regarding the nature and circumstance of this hypothetical condition, nevermind the degree of knowledge and identity one must have in this condition in order to make the “right” (or the “good”) calculation. In this sense, I believe it’s a false strategy to delineate between “classical” and “modern” versions of liberalism. Indeed, I would suggest that the oft heard phrase “the proper role of government” turns out not to be the right question to ask in liberalism. This phrase can be recast as “what are the proper ends of political obligation that rational agents would consent to. But this yields no universally recognized normative solutions, in large part because the rational calculation depends on a disputed nature of the hypothetical state–the state of no agent obligation.

Instead, I would submit that the relevant question in liberalism, the one question that liberalism can answer, concerns the boundary constraints on the degree of political obligation. Put differently, there are recognizable liberal violations that absolve rational agents from political obligation to the State. In this sense, what is meaningful is “constrained government” and not “limited government.” To put it even more bluntly, liberalism, in terms of a theory of political obligation, is really a theory of justifiable revolution(i.e: absolution of political obligation).

But what are these “recognizable liberal violations”? Well, I often use the phrase “the State as the total source of government.” Some people are confused by that phrase. Let me make the meaning clear. Liberalism, by definition, holds politics and the State to be artificial constructs. If you do not ascribe to this principle, then you are not liberal, period. It is an axiom.2. But what is actually meant by the State as an “artificial construct.” Simple, it means the State is a compliance mechanism. But the object(s) of compliance are not supposed to originate from the State itself. The total source of government simply means that the State serves as both as the originator and enforcer of compliance.3. Now it is perhaps fair to say these things are always a matter of degree, but I would suggest we have a particularly relevant example in our modern context: Intellectual Property Rights of Digital Objects. Since any digital object more or less crosses the Rubicon of becoming a “public good” once a network is introduced, it would appear self-evident that the old concepts of “intellectual property and copyright” would necessarily have to adapt to the reality of modern computer science and telecommunications. This adaptation is something we would call a “market” or a “spontaneous order” process. In the historical verbiage, we would say a “product of civil society.” However, a purely political process in this instance would define the object of compliance as something that would never originate from an evolutionary cooperative process” because its enforcement–that is, the enforcement of the traditional definition of “exclusive property” vis a vis digital objects–would necessitate a totalitarian compliance regime. The enforcement of this artificial(i.e., political economic) regime would profoundly violate our liberal boundary conditions. In modern public choice terms, we would cite it as a stark demonstration of rent-seeking becoming the source of the “decision-making rules.”

I often write about the incoherence of libertarianism. What I mean by this is the frequent methodological misuse of it. Normatively, it sheds no light on the liberal problem of the rational foundations of political obligation. I’m sorry to inform you that libertarianism is not the missing piece of the puzzle to convince us of the rightness of the “Lockean State” or the “goodness” of Rawls’ two principles of justice. In no way is it a thing that “normalizes” political obligation. Anyone who tries to methodologically use it in this fashion will almost invariably end up legitimizing political obligation that actually fails the liberal test of legitimacy. In my previous post, I discussed this outcome with regard to the BHL’s “Neo-Rawlsian Program.” I can easily deconstruct a similar outcome in the case of the Cato “Limited Government program.” Consider this eulogy of Ronald Reagan by David Boaz. Boaz declares Reagan the most eloquent spokesman for limited government of our time. Why? Because Reagan supposedly “succeeded in changing the climate of opinion in the United States and around the world.” However, I’m not sure what this has to do with “limited government.” Indeed, after the obligatory Reagan gushing, Boaz finally gets around to conceding that Reagan oversaw a huge expansion in the scope and size of government. A clever wit might suggest Reagan was more of a variant manifestation of the devil’s greatest trick: in this case, convincing the world that a massive increase in scope of State power is evidence of the existence of its limited power. But even worse, as I pointed out in my previous post, The Social Justice of the Police State, it was during the Reagan era that the massive rates of prison incarceration began to slope dramatically upward. What Reagan represented, in actuality, was an instance of a gross liberal violation. In other words, Reagan represented a condition of liberal delegitimization of political obligation(the drug war and the police state). But leave it to the libertarians and their “limited government mythology” to not only legitimize the gross liberal violation but to crown Reagan as some sort of generational prophet.

What then is the proper methodological use of libertarianism? As I initially stated, it is a positive theory of the political economy of legal plunder. It explains and provides a positive framework to explain what we see(and predict what we will likely see in the future). This is where it is strong; this is where it is rock solid. Unfortunately, whereas say Bastiat thought there was an upper limit to legal plunder, we can employ the modern methods of public choice and game theory to demonstrate the possibility that there may not be such an upper bound. By “upper bound” we mean there is some limit L that if exceeded will trigger a correction. This would indeed be the case if not for the pesky problem of friction. By friction, of course, we mean transaction costs(institutional costs). If we introduce transactions costs into the context we find that a free-entry competitive rent-seeking game between equal players can dramatically over-dissipate rents. By rent dissipation we mean the ratio of outlays or costs to the rent stream: D= C/R4. The over-dissipation of rents in free-entry political competition(between equal agents) can increase without limit, meaning that this type of political competition can waste unlimited resources for finite allocated or created rents. Thus, it can resemble a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. Of course, we also know that iteration can be a means for cooperation to replace strictly dominating strategies that produce highly inefficient equilibriums. In the case of political(or policy) rents, we might use the term “collusion” in lieu of “cooperation.” The implication of the collusion is the emergence of institutional political arrangements that avoid rent dissipation. In a “capitalist economy,” the non-dissipated policy rents are then “capitalized.” Public Policy may then favor tying workers compensations and retirement benefits to the performance of our capitalized policy rents, etc. etc… What can emerge then is a highly interlocking but nonresiliant system that introduces a high degree of asymmetry and risk aversion. These factors only contribute to under dissipation of rents. Our system can “evolve”5 to become highly resistant to “reform” even in face of transparently massive discrepancies in the ratio of outlays to rents in such industries as banking/finance.

So, libertarianism is complimentary to liberalism in a positive methodological sense of informing us of the likelihood of liberal violations and the difficulty of reforming/correcting these violations. What we find then is that we have no normative theory of Utopia, but we most certainly have a positive theory of dystopia. Some may find this a depressing result, but it does serve to release us from political obligation. To those who stress the need of evangelicalism and education, I would suggest that this is the message that should be delivered. But then again, this message is already apparent. Sans the political and professional classes, everyone is quite aware of the fundamental corruption of government. The problem is not education(or changing the climate of public opinion) but rather a collective action one of revolution. However, I would deem this to be an entrepreneurial problem and not one of violent overthrow(which I think is futile). Unfortunately, but hardly unexpectedly, most(but not all), of the libertarian professional class works against this. By and large, the objective of this class is “recognition.” To the extent libertarianism works to promote a “proper ends or role of government,” it merely serves to underwrite totalitarianism.


Liberalism fails to normatively establish the proper ends of the State–that is, the appropriate level of primary goods(in Lockean language, what the property “bundle” should include). Liberalism fares better as a theory of justifiable revolution(termination of political obligation) by defining a boundary condition for political obligation–the State as the total source of government. Libertarianism in no way normalizes political obligation in terms of casting any light on the constitution of proper ends(e.g., Rawlsian “primary goods” or the Lockean “property bundle”). Instead, libertarianism offers a “positive methodological” approach that explains both liberal failure and the difficulty of correcting the failure. Libertarianism, then, absolves us from political obligation. But in the hands of a professional class, it is used(and will continue to be used) to normalize plutocratic and totalitarian outcomes.

1Of course, not everyone would agree with this definition.

2 Communitarianism is an example of a political philosophy that rejects liberalism. Communitarianism more or less holds politics to be the “state of human nature” and denies the possibility of individual identity defined outside of moral obligation. Examples: Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel.

3 The Virginia School of Public Choice would recast “the State as the originator of compliance” in terms of the concept of rent-seeking being the source of decision-making rules.

4Rent Dissipation D is measured by the ratio of outlays/costs to rent garnered. D=C/R. Full dissipation, D–>1. Overdissipation, D > 1. Underdissipation, D < 1. A General treatment of rent-seeking reveals there is no "rational, unbiased rent dissipation model." That is, D=1 is not the "rational outcome." Rent dissipation is largely a function of the institutional context; i.e., a function of the bias of the rules. It is a miscalculation to think(cough,cough***Don Boudreaux***) that capitalism is rational, moderating influence on "bad rules regimes." Of course, no rational model of rent dissipation(by this, i mean that D=1 is the "unbiased, normative outcome") shoots down Caplan's "rational irrationality microeconomic foundations" as well.

5 Evolution of artificial systems(political economy) that demonstrate no resiliency is probably a perversion of the term “evolution.” Interestingly, “social darwinism” is a typical charge against those who point this out.

The Social Justice of a Police State

Fareed Zakaria recently published a piece, Incarceration Nation, that points out there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America – more than 6 million – than were in the Soviet Gulag Archipelago at its height. The imprisonment rate in the US is approaching 1 per 100 which is generally an order of magnitude greater than the other western-styled democracies around the globe. Zakaria notes that this gap between the US and the rest of the world is relatively recent phenomenon. Thirty years ago, at the start of the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” the US incarceration rate, though at the outer bounds, was nonetheless in line with other civilized democracies. Since then, however, the US incarceration rate has more than quintupled.

I mention the Zakaria article because it offers a relevant contextual backdrop to this recent Cato Unbound essay, A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism, by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi. Both of these authors are academics involved in the so-called “Bleeding Heart Libertarian Project” to marry distributive justice to libertarian political theory. The preferrred distributive justice paradigm is the Rawlsian one. The intent of their essay is to demonstrate the compatiblity of this paradigm with a historical weaving of the (classical) liberal tradition. The corollary is that libertarianism, as typically defined, is a departure from this tradition. It is proposed then that a sympathetic adaptation of Rawls will right the course of a proper libertarian political theory.

Frankly, I would not dispute the primary thrust of the essay: that a “non-bleeding heart libertarianism” is a departure from liberalism. I would qualify this agreement by noting that a “non-bleeding heart libertarianism” is not a modern development. Historically, libertarianism is rooted in a rejection of any normative social contract rationale for obedience to the State. Of course, we are talking about a different history than the highly selective one outlined by Zwolinski and Tomasi. However, it is not my intention to adjudicate libertarian history in this post. I’ve previously given my account of this history here and here. Instead, I will only point out there is a reason why libertarianism departs from liberalism: namely, because liberalism inherently violates its own constraints regarding the artificiality of the State and politics. By artificiality, we mean the State is not supposed to become the source of government. At the very least, the State should avoid the evolutionary equilibrium of becoming the total source of government(i.e., a Police State). However, Zwolinski and Tomasi’s essay demonstrates how easily distributive justice can legitimize a police state and provides yet another example of bleeding hearts not exactly bleeding for everyone.

The Zwolinski and Tomasi essay begins with an erroneous, straw-man premise:

To the extent that respect for property leaves some individuals poor and destitute, individuals might be called by a sense of charity and beneficence to respond. But the moral justification of free market institutions is logically independent from any claims about the effects of those institutions on the material holdings of the poor.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Zwolinski and Tomasi mischaracterize the libertarian principle. Enforceable moral claims of any property rights regime are not independent of the material holdings of agents. Indeed, the libertarian principle is actually a moral constraint against property rights regimes. If agents are worse off under the regime than they would be without the regime, then there is no moral obligation to obey the regime. This moral constraint illuminates an essential distinction between libertarians and progressives. Libertarians are not intererested in distributive justice correcting unjust regimes. The correction is the abolition of these regimes. I would argue the classical libertarian position–if we were to,say, follow Bastiat–is that any property rights regime that requires distributive justice to retain legitimacy is probably corrupt. Following Bastiat, we would identify distributive justice as a form of bribery against defection. I would add that these bribes are much more directed at the “middle class” than the so-called poor. Thus, we can expect the so-called “social safety net” to largely consist of an array of middle-class subsidies and not a device or thing designed to minimize a worst-case condition.

Zwolinski and Tomasi identify Rawlsian justice as the “gold standard” of contemporary social justice. But as I havepreviously discussed, Rawls later modified his methodological approach to defend his principles of justice. David Friedman, in his critique of Zwolinksi and Tomasi provides a clue to the problem with Rawls’ original approach. Writes Friedman:

And one implication of that version, taken as literally as I have been taking the natural rights alternative, is that it is better to have a world where everyone is at a utility level of a hundred than a world with one person at ninety-nine and everyone else at a thousand. I have never yet been able to figure out why anyone takes either the derivation or the conclusion seriously.

The answer to Friedman’s criticism is that Rawls’ formulation was actually challenged. In particular, John Harsanyi’s “originalist position” maximized aggregate utility(straight utilitarian). Indeed, Harsanyi’s version exposed the problem with the “Veil of Ignorance” as a normative construct: it lacked a plausible risk aversion model. Rawls’ “Maxmin” version is equivalent to infinite risk aversion. Harsanyi’s “max utilitarian” is equivalent to zero risk aversion. Neither infinite nor zero risk aversion is plausible. The VOI instrument has to establish the appropriate level of risk aversion in the original position that falls somewhere between zero and infinity. Obviously, then, the VOI does not yield unique solutions and thus loses its normative power.

Friedman’s primary criticism of Zwolinski and Tomasi is that the Rawlsian conception doesn’t actually link to the historical utilitarian foundations of “classical liberalism.” But John Harsanyi’s formulation directly casts the Originalist Position in such utilitarian terms. And it is this utilitarian casting which more or less demonstrated that the normative foundation of Rawls’ theory was built over a house of cards.

Rawl’s modified approach to his theory of justice was developed in his later book, “Political Liberalism.” Political Liberalism more or less concedes the lack of a rational foundation for a unanimity regarding hypothetical justice principles. Political liberalism is an explicit shift from the rational to the “reasonable,” a shift from justice as “moral” to justice as “political.” It is here that Rawls lays out the ideas of the “overlapping consensus” and “Public Reason.” The government stays neutral between competing moral foundations. Justice is a “political product” defined by the overlapping consensus of moral dialogue. Reasonable discussion is supposed to validate Rawls’ principles of justice. In practice, however, it merely roots justice in the cultural war. So, the gold standard of contemporary social justice turns out to be the overlapping consensus between Rush Limbaugh and Daily Kos. This, of course, is a farce. But it only points out the inherent flaw of “Public Reason.” Public Reason has nothing to with liberal justice; instead it is entirely rooted in a communitarian war over “recognition.”

The Zwolinski/Tomasi essay makes it clear that “recognition” plays an important in who “qualifies” for justice. They propose a rather high barrier of entry to qualify for being “poor.” Evidently, “Poor” excludes the social rift-raft and the unemployed. To be properly poor means to be employed. But this is a silly and obviously artificial exclusionary construction. An obvious solution to maximize the condition of our properly defined “poor” would be to simply to maximize the barrier of entry to qualify to work. A “social justice claim” reduces to a protectionist claim, which is often the case. This type of protectionism becomes particularly insidious when you consider that who is legally “recognized” to work in a National Security State becomes a matter of public debate of an overlapping consensus between Rush Limbaugh and Daily Kos. This is hardly justice; rather, it’s a moral perversion.

In the past I have discussed the concept of the “Pink Police State.” The Pink Police State, like all police states, delineates a clear demarcation of privilege between the professional classes and those who are shit out of luck in terms of inclusion in the club. In other words, it is “the illegals,” the scapegoats, and the “unrecognized” who take the full brunt of a police state. It breeds a permanent underclass. The Pink Police State, however, is a type of classification that likely portends a flourishing recognition of a “libertarian” professional class. This professional class will spare no opportunity to equate unprecedented recognition with an unprecedented condition of human liberty. And the primary aim of this community will be recognition, not justice(or reform). In this vein, the Bleeding Heart Libertarian Project simply appears to be an exercise in professional recognition. It is difficult to take seriously claims of distributive justice in a police state, particularly if the “bleeding heart” concern for the poor excludes the very victims of this police state. But this is exactly how a professional class can babble about social justice in an underlying context marked by an unprecedented political economy of a prison industrial complex.

The West is accustomed to regarding “Police States” as restricted to non-democratic states, but “voting” has nothing to do with its definition. The definition is as follows: (1) undue restrictions on the freedom of mobility, the freedom of transactions, the freedom to work (2) perverse rates of domestic incarceration (3) system-wide domestic surveillance organs engaged in domestic spying in all aspects of the social, economic and political life of its citizens. The makeup of these organs will usually entail some degree of a secret police and an unaccountable intelligence complex (4) the militarization of the borders (5) an arbitrary distinction between law and the exercise of power by the executive agency (6) a militarization or para-militarization of “law enforcement” (7) a social context where the government actively propagandizes a permanent enemy, a permanent threat, a permanent war (8) a social context that glorifies the organs of authority, “the men and women in uniform.”

The United States is a Police State. And the Pink Police State that will be its social justice…