The State is its Own Agency

That the NSA has now commenced with overt pressure campaigns to countermand any legislative effort to curtail its vast surveillance enterprise cements an obvious liberal dilemma regarding the agency of the State. Make no mistake, totalitarian spying exemplifies an agency whose ends are in competition with the ends of its own citizens. This is a fatal violation of the liberal paradigm out in the open, staring you right in the face.

The germane question which moves to the fore of consideration hence pertains to the extent of government surveillance. Is it indeed totalitarian? If we were to constrain the scope of consideration strictly to the NSA itself, then the answer would probably be no. It’s modus operandi does not follow the traditional taxonomy of the textbook totalitarian spymaster. However, thanks to the documentation leaked by Edward Snowden, what we have now is confirmation of the cypherpunk dystopian model, which in a real sense, is much worse, for it portends a sustainable template of planetary social control. The NSA in and of itself is one thing. However, in the larger context of its coerced “strategic partnerships” with the top US internet & software companies–as means to facilitate/execute the data collection requirements–what we end up with is quite another: the equivalent of a libcap library on every one of your network devices persistently cataloging your “matrix” in the well-connected social graph, built and maintained under the “legal auspices” of a three-hop dragnet.

In light of the Snowden revelations, the NSA has embarked on the aforementioned pressure and information campaign to countermand the PR damage. Just yesterday, the NSA released two documents that purport to dispel the notion of it being an agency of totalitarian collection. Having just read them , I can say that the 1.6% statistic of “touched traffic” and 0.025% statistic of “reviewed traffic”, on a daily basis, are highly misleading. The first hoodwink is to point out that out of the exabyte daily traffic volume, roughly 60%-70% is ip video traffic1, which shrinks our “basketball court” down to the size of a racquetball court. The second hoodwink is to infer the sampling follows a pattern of independent random trials–in the classic stats model, proving or disproving a hypothesis drawn from such a random sample–instead of what it actually is: the accumulation of a graph-based document store enabling a traversable, retrospective query system. The whole thing is just plain subterfuge.

By now, it should be apparent that I consider the cypherpunks to be the most relevant social scientists of our day. In no small part because they are at the forefront of the battle-lines of 21st century political economy. Assange, for one, has been singularly confirmed on a number of points. In particular, the US reaction of “Insider Threat” has to count as spectacular confirmation of his thesis of “conspiracy and networks.” The kernel of differentiated political and economic jurisdiction that always lurked beneath the rationale of wikileaks now seems obvious in light of what is required for secure and autonomous cloud computing platforms going forward2. Assange’s contention that legal and regulatory entities were engaging in data-laundering–that is, ex post manufacturing legal reconstructions of “evidence” gathered from the NSA dragnet spying enterprise–has since been confirmed by Reuters with respect to two agencies: the DEA and the IRS.

In contrast, the “liberal” political and academic establishment are dinosaurs. No better example of this than this piece at “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” The United States is not a Police State. The entire piece is a confirmation of my (quite prescient, as it turns out) old post, Free Market Fairness: A bridge to nowhere. Fernando Teson’s entire argument boils down to the position that truth should never stand in the way of mainstream recognition. Of course, as I pointed out in that earlier post, the “respectable libertarian formulation,” in the form of the chicago school, had held sway for thirty years in the domain of finance and “regulatory reform” leading to nothing but banking oligarchy and a permanent severance of political freedom from capitalism. As I pointed out at the end, all it would take would be a minority dissident faction to blow that entire thesis to smithereens and force the “bleeding hearts” to side with what everyone and their brother–outside of polite academic company–knew to be tyranny and oppression. I’m not surprised “Edward Snowden” doesn’t appear in any post on that site, outside one inclusion in an obscure link.

Frankly, the boogeyman of North Korea is tiresome as the singleton measuring stick of totalitarianism. For starters, the inquisitive person might ask just how long North Korea would last if not for China and the US directly and indirectly propping it up(which should trigger a deeper discussion of the taxonomy to begin with when considering States that prop up even worse monsters). However, the better question might be why the persistent singleton casting of 21st century totalitarianism in the mold of mid-20th century soviet model when that model–in terms of having any sphere of international influence–died out two decades ago?

In the recent book, “Cypherpunks: Freedom & The Future Of The Internet,” Andy Muller-Maguhn specifically outlines the stated intent of our 21st century spooks: the use of secrecy as a means to gain control of social processes. This presents a countervailing agency problem more along the lines of a “squishy totalitarianism,” but this is more than sufficient to eviscerate the liberal paradigm. In fact, it acquires a particular sinister aura because it appears quite apparent that most are quite comfortable persisting the liberal mythology within its confines. The industries of “social justice” and “the invisible hand of market social coordination” will continue to spit out oblivious drivel because after all, they are “industries.”

As I have noted on previous occasions, the planned order or surveillance introduces a potentially glaring incentive-incompatibility agency problem into market exchange. One that makes mincemeat of any position that uses the existence of markets as an immediate counterfactual to any claim of systems of social control. If we cast “spontaneous order” as a type of “social graph” and then analytically run it against the “planned order of surveillance” that exists to anatomize it, we obtain a “second-order dynamic” between the social graph and its surveillance that illuminates the distinction between laissez-faire and capitalism in a far greater clarity than the dinosaur methods of 20th century classical liberalism still mired in the roots of the socialist calculation debates.

Frankly, to avoid serious methodological error, one should start from the assumption of “the State as its own Agency.” Everything else flows from there…

1 As I pointed out in this old post, Technology is not Freedom, ip video has its own extensive surveillance regime.

2 Ideological preferences aside, the cloud, in any rent-seeking context, is where the internet goes because it is simply a much more efficient computing platform.

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…

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.

Bleeding Hearts

If anyone is actually interested in the best “bleeding heart” commentary regarding anarchism, Marxism, and the State, there is no better authority than George Orwell. Most typically miss the actual underlying message of Orwell, which is a bleak account of ultimate political equilibrium in a reality that has proven to be foreign to the anarchist, socialist, and/or capitalist corrections to the inevitable progression of the state.

Simply, compare Orwell to Matt Zwolinsky regarding political stability. With Orwell, you get Nineteen Eighty Four. With Zwolinsky, you get a claim of political stability of the State, against competing challenges, as an argument for distributive justice. Really, who is more accurate, here…

Liberaltarian Failure

A writer at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen proposes the following Rawlsekian project:

The key thing about any Rawlsekian project is that it combines Rawls’s normative framework with Hayek’s understanding of economics. Combined with James Buchanan’s public choice theory of institutions and we have a powerful conceptual framework which provides, I think, the best justification for libertarianism.

Frankly, I would use the term “liberaltarian” instead “libertarian” to describe this “Rawlsekian framework.” This is in keeping with my preference for a consistent political taxonomy that restricts libertarianism to a classification of radical political thought that denies political authority. Hence, any framework prefaced with the libertarian adjective that actually is not radical should be re-classified under the “liberaltarian” category. This would not only include the “Rawls + Hayek” frameworks but the Cato/Reason/GMU(variants of Nozick and/or Hayek and/or Public Choice) frameworks as well. Of course, not everyone would agree with my taxonomy but it does eliminate, at least in my mind, much of the incoherence surrounding “libertarian apologetics.” I would concede the likelihood that if you concede the legitimacy of political authority, you are conceding the legitimacy of the violation of the libertarian principle.

The problem with “liberaltarianism,” which can be viewed as a modern revival of social contract theory, boils down to weaknesses of a normative case for unanimity regarding hypothetical justice principles.

Failure of the Rawlsekian framework

Rawlsian Justice is agnostic regarding what political economic framework is plugged into the “justice equation.” It could be Hayek; it could be Keynes; it could be whomever/whatever. With Rawls, Political Economy is not part of the “normative framework.” It’s an “empirical plugin” of sorts, related only to the max-min problem regarding income/wealth. If capitalism better maximizes the minimum, then it’s capitalism. If socialism empirically demonstrates a superior max-min solution, then it’s socialism.

Therefore, a consideration of Hayek, insofar as it relates to the merit of Rawls’ normative justice framework, is irrelevant. If Rawls’ normative justice framework has no merit, then Hayek is immaterial.

Now if you have been reading this blog, you will know that I have been persistent in making the case that Rawls normative justice framework fails. We should recall that Rawls uses the “Veil of Ignorance” construct to argue for a hypothetical unanimity regarding the distribution of primary goods(liberties and resources). The VOI is an instrument to demonstrate a normative universilization of certain principles of justice into a type of categorical imperative.

With Rawls, there are essentially two justice principles that the VOI universalizes. The first addresses the distribution of Political Liberty. Rawls would derive a bill of rights from the standpoint of the most adversely affected agents. For example, a “first amendment” follows because:

(i) No Government Religion: the most adversely affected agent=the Christian
(ii) Government Religion: the most adversely affected agent=the atheist

The atheist, the most adversely affected agent under scenario (ii), would be be much worse off under compulsory worship and/or taxation support of religious institutions than the Christian, the the most adversely affected agent under scenario (i), who had the freedom of worship but had to support religious institutions with it’s own money.

Therefore, under a VOI, where the agent does not know it’s own identity(whether it will be a Christian or an atheist, etc), it will select (i). In this likewise manner, Rawls is able to universalize a justice principle of Political Liberty as “an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all.”

Rawls’ second principle of justice addresses the socio-economic distribution of opportunity and outcome. This is essentially equality of opportunity and the max-min principle.

These two principles together then comprise a “justice as fairness” framework for the fair distribution of primary goods. Noting:

(a)The 2nd principle is agnostic regarding whether the socio-economic institutional structure is capitalist or socialist, or mixed.
(b)There is an preference order constraint on the principles. For example, maximize the minimum share but this can’t violate the equality of opportunity condition. And neither max-min nor EOE can violate the political liberties from the first principle.

While Rawlsian Justice, properly understood, may have some intuitive appeal, it nonetheless fails as a normative framework. There are a number of ways to document this failure.

(1) The Rawls vs Harsanyi debate over Maxmin vs Max(avg utility) under the VOI exposed the problems with VOI. The Rawls version, the Maxmin, was equivalent to infinite risk aversion. The Harsanyi version, utilitarian maximization, was equivalent to zero risk aversion. Both infinite risk aversion and zero risk aversion are not plausible. The VOI instrument now had to establish the appropriate level of risk aversion in the original position–an aversion to risk that falls somewhere between zero and infinity. Obviously, the VOI does not yield unique solutions and thus loses its normative power.

(2) Although today’s context loves to pit a libertarian backlash against Rawls, at the time, it was actually a communitarian backlash that would emerge against Rawls. On a practical level, it should be pointed out that Rawls’ risk aversion basis for justice stemmed from the assumption of a pluralistic society, one that included the presence of a plurality of irreconcilable moral and religious preferences. Rawls assumed a rational basis for a pluralistic liberalism. However, the intense communitarian backlash against Rawls would (i) reject any universal basis for making moral judgments, (ii) opt for moral subjectivism and (iii) subordinate the individual to the norms and values of whatever community.

Communitarianism was a direct attack against Rawls, particularly the political liberties of his first justice principle.

(3) By the time the liberal vs communitarian debate died down in the academic literature, there arose to prominence the new disciplines of experimental game theory,neural economics, etc., along with the increasing notability of the role of biology in economics. Psychology and biology were now regarded as highly influential factors in the formation of human preferences.

(1) is a failure of liberal rationalism, (3) is an attack against the very assumptions of liberal rationalism and (2) was a direct attack against “rational pluralism.”

Rawls, twenty years later, would amend his Theory of Justice with the book, “Political Liberalism.” Rawls’ Political Liberalism was a retreat from his earlier work, an admission that his Theory of Justice had been built over a house of cards. No longer was his Justice Theory a categorical imperative. Indeed Rawls came to the conclusion that any uniformity in fundamental moral and political beliefs–that had been outlined in his earlier Theory of Justice–could only be maintained by an oppressive state force. So there is a shift. The shift was from rational to “reasonable,” from justice as moral to justice as political. The government should stay neutral between competing moral conceptions, and it is the intersection of the different conceptions–the “overlapping consensus”–that forms the reasonable basis of a political justice, from which the Rawlsian principles would still be affirmed.

Rawls Political Liberalism, however, is no more normative than his VOI. Empirically, the cultural war, the drug war and the National Security State present significant problems for Rawls’ political liberalism. There are obligations attached to the distribution of primary goods, obligations that violate Rawls’ first principle. The “overlapping consensus” denies Rawls’ principles of justice.

Rawls’ constraints on the discourse of “Public Reason,” to maintain official bounds for a stable reasonable pluralism, would invoke the same kind of oppressive State force Rawls cited in abandoning justice as a categorical imperative. Political Liberalism was published at the dawn of the internet age and digital communications; enforcing a “duty for civility” and official organs for public discourse as means for maintaining stability and legitimacy in the internet age would work against the intended ends.

Before he died, Rawls published a third iteration of his Justice Theory, “Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.” In this book, Rawls looked at the injustices in the US and pointed a finger at Capitalist Political Economy. So the “Restatement” eliminates the agnosticism of the institutions of Political Economy articulated in the first book. Now the Political Economy must be socialist(although not State socialism; rather some variant of property-owning democracy or democratic socialism).

The amusing question is how many cracks does a guy get at coming up with a supposed “normative” theory of liberal social justice? Fairness cannot be rationally universalized; nor can “reasonable” political consensus be expected to spawn John Rawl’s moral preferences. So the next step is to necessarily constrain the Political Economy preference.

It should be apparent that there is no “normative Rawlsian framework.”

Public Choice Failure

The Rawlsekian project also incorporates Public Choice. However, as I’ve pointed out in The Matrix as Ruling Class and The Calculus of Dissent, there is catastrophic empirical failure in treating government as a market. Specifically, the economic rent transfers dwarf the competitive outlays for such economic rent. The rent-seeking industry is way too small.

The Public Choice failure is actually evidence of a ruling class and the ruling class invalidates the Public Choice rationale for the hypothetical unanimity of the constitutional political framework.

Matt Zwolinski at BHL identifies this Rawlsekian project to be in close affinity to “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.” But, from the above, we can outline how the Rawlsekian project actually reinforces a conclusion more aligned with a “Radical Libertarian Project.”

  • Rawls rejects the moral foundational basis of Justice originally presented in “Theory of Justice” as untenable
  • Rawls’ Political Liberalism retreats to a political foundation of Justice, the “overlapping-consensus”
  • Rawls, before he died, emphasized the “Public Reason” foundation of this “overlapping-consensus” and the necessity of a certain type of Political economy to underlie institutions of Public Reason
  • Rawls’ rejects welfare state capitalism and advocates instead for the political economy of property-owning democracy. But the 1990s essentially moved in that direction, with welfare reform and a new political economy built over expanding home ownership
  • Meanwhile, by the 1990s, Public Choice Theorists like Tullock had begun to identify serious potential problems with treating government as a market–namely, the rent-seeking industry is way too small relative to the economic rent transfers. Tullock tried to explain this away with an “inefficient market hypothesis.”
  • The Bubble pop in the late 2000s of real estate prices and the credit derivatives to insure against the risk of default of the mortgage securities that financed the expansion of a “property-owning democracy” set the stage for the greatest economic rent transfer in human history(TARP), demolishing in the process, the Public choice rationale of inefficient markets in rent-seeking. The only rational alternative now left was “ruling class.” So, in no small part, due to the “justice” pursuit of “property-owning democracy,” the reality of a ruling class became undeniably exposed.
  • So, from this outline, one might see why I’m insistent on a taxonomy that differentiates between liberaltarianism and libertarianism, noting that much of what passes for libertarianism actually should be reclassified as “liberaltarianism.” In this instance, the spectacular failure of a “liberaltarian normative framework” perhaps does yield a “best justification for libertarianism.” Of course, this justification is not exactly in the sense originally intended by the author.

    Bleed the Freak: Libertarian Re-Distributive Justice

    These stand for me
    Name your god and bleed the freak
    I’d like to see
    How you all would bleed for me

    Bleed the Freak

    Bleeding Heart Libertarianism appears to be new academic blog organized around an effort to promote “social justice” within libertarianism. On a superficial level, I have to chuckle a bit. Perhaps the only thing more unpopular than the flag burning libertarian(rejection of American Exceptionalism) is the “bleeding heart liberal(empathy as the foundation for “re-distributive justice”). In academia, “Rawlsian justice” may be well respected principle, but in politics, “bleeding heart liberal” is not a principle, it’s an accusation…and a particularly toxic one at that. Obviously, this perhaps presents a bit of dilemma for the academics when a principle of “social justice” has no cachet in larger society. Indeed, I can trace the modern morphing of the word “liberal” into “progressive” as a direct consequence of the 60s counter-culture that obliterated any empathetic rational for social redistribution from the political lexicon. Liberal became a demonized word meaning redistribution to hippies and single black women, classes of people that elicited little empathy from the American Taxpayer. Gradually, “liberals” would drop the liberal identify for “progressive” and the adopt of the language of “investment” rather than spending.

    Investment, of course, implies a whole set of accompanying responsibilities–i.e., behavior control. “Rawlsian Justice” is doomed when this “restitution” of luck egalitarianism results in an obligation on the part of the recipients. It destroys the “empathy” basis for the so-called “Veil of Ignorance.” There is no empathy for disobedience. “Luck egalitarianism” ends up meaning that the price of disobedience by the least advantaged is being “Shit out of Luck” when it comes to prison incarceration. This reality is empirically demonstrated by the Drug War, which, frankly, makes a mockery of Rawlsian Justice.

    Historically, there is good reason why libertarianism rejects any legal basis for social justice(“social contract”). Law is not justice, it is force. Articulated most plainly and succinctly by Bastiat’s “The Law.” The proper application of this force is the correction of injustice. This distinction between justice and force vis a vis law is what differentiates the libertarian from the progressive. The progressive view of law as means for re-distributive justice is deconstructed by the libertarians as legitimization of force as a means for “re-distributive justice.” In short, law as an instrument of theft. The vague abstraction of the “Social Contract” is supposed to neuter the libertarian charge of theft. But the libertarian asks just what is “Social Justice”? What are the proper ends that legitimize force as means? Who decides these proper ends. Typically, the rejoinder consists of some appeal to “democratic collective will.” But this is a supernatural concept that lacks support from Social Science, namely:

    (1) Arrow Impossibility Theorem: ranked, transitive Social Preferences derived from a set of ordinal individual preferences are either irrational, dictatorial or meaningless
    (2) The Logic of Collective Action: minorities will dominate large-scale collective action.

    The Arrow and Public Choice critique would seem to put an end to the Paretian Liberal, a creature born from the welfare economics that had emerged from neoclassical equilibrium theory. Do social preferences exist? In a society with heterogeneous individual preferences, the answer is largely no. Yet a whole social science called “Social Choice” emerged to find a way out of Arrow’s “Impossibility.” Social Choice is largely about making the case where interpersonal, cardinal utility calculations can be introduced that can allow for a meaningful Social Preference. Amartya Sen, for example, proposed the idea of “information broadening” that would create a de facto social consensus to allow interpersonal, cardinal utility calculations for some individual utility. For Sen, it is universalism via political consensus, one that it is arrived at via reasoned public discourse in the context of increased information. On certain matters, particularly with regard to core redistribution issues, cardinal utility could then trump ordinal individual preference.

    But Sen’s attempt to rescue Social Preference suffers from obvious empirical problems. Fox News and MSNBC make a mockery of Sen’s “information broadening.” It’s clear that increased information, politically, drives a market for values validation and not reasoned consensus. It actually reinforces ordinal individual preference rather than serving as any basis for the holy grail of cardinal utility. Politics is and remains, at surface, largely the art/game of de-legitimization of the other side. Social Choice simply cannot survive politics.

    But Politics below the surface is even worse still regarding it being any instrument of re-distributive justice. Here’s where the logic of collective action takes over. There’s “redistribution” going on, but it’s not the type that meets any criteria for Pareto efficiency. Most of it involves decisions made by the few that benefit the few while externalizing the costs to the many. As Anthony De Jasay wrote in “Against Politics:”

    Nine-tenths of practical politics is the making of non-unanimous decisions by some, which hurt others. Do we really want such decisions imposed as rational means to ends that are ultimately neither rational nor irrational, and must be posited by brazen assertion, mystical communion with the good, or occult-value-comparisons between persons? Pareto-optimal outcomes offer a minimally morally legitimate space for a minimal state, and no more…

    In other words, if we look at the massive scope of centralization in Washington, the endless legislative hearings of a myriad number of subcommittees, the endless number of bureaucratic executive agencies, and the uncountable number of spawning regulatory czars, it’s obvious that this is not about Pareto efficiency or social justice. This is about something else. The final proof in the pudding is when this monstrosity, the end product of “enlightenment liberalism,” spews out the secret police. Now that this has happened, it’s time to put down Madison and pick up Orwell.

    The problem with bleeding heart liberalism/libertarianism can thusly be summed up:

    (i) In a heterogeneous society with heterogeneous ordered individual preferences, the notion of “Social Preference,” the basis of any “Pareto Justice,” is more or less impossible. Well almost…Perhaps the “American Dream” comes closest to Sen’s idea of a “social consensus,” but this actually works as a perverse counter to Pareto. Those on the receiving end of this type of re-distributive justice are held to an obligation; there is a little empathy for those who fail to meet this obligation(society then tolerates a Police State preying on the bottom of society), and to the extent that this “social consensus” becomes subsidized, it becomes expensive for everyone, meaning if you want to live the lifestyle of the “social consensus,” the price is your obedience.

    (ii) The Logic of Collective Action is not to resolve (i) as a Collective Action Problem. Indeed, at bottom, there really can’t be a collective action problem vis a vis (i) to resolve because there is no real social preference in that regard to begin. The Logic of Collective Action skews toward theft/plunder, and (i) is really about a “social consensus” that legitimizes or glorifies plunder. To recall Bastiat:

    When plunder has become a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.

    This is not to say, however, that libertarianism is not concerned with re-distributive justice. On the contrary, it was born from the injustice of “liberal institutionalism.” However, it attacks the root, meaning it’s concerned with re-distribution from the bottom to the top rather than re-distribution from top to bottom. In other words, it is concerned with Plutocracy and exploitation, products of monopoly, legitimized by the “social contract”. In libertarianism, “Fairness” is a product of commutative justice, not distributive justice.

    Laissez Faire, born from the radical liberal class critique of political economy, particularly against monopoly privledges serving politico/economic ends of a permanent war economy, means governance by civil society that is an institutionally emergent product of commutative justice.

    This is what libertarianism historically actually means.

    So, even though I may share many of the values of “bleeding heart libertarians,” I’m not down with “Compassionate Libertarianism” because it is operating under some mistaken notion that libertarianism somehow needs to come to grips with the collective action failures of liberal distributive justice, when in fact it has done so from the start. This question:

    Property rights, markets, and many of the resulting distributions of wealth and opportunities may have arisen spontaneously. But this does not prevent us from asking whether they are just, and whether we should or should not work to change them in some ways – even if the complexity of the market order and our bounded cognitive abilities means that our capacity for successful interventions is limited.

    is nothing new, except it is treated, in the libertarian tradition, as a problem of commutative justice and not distributive justice. In distributive justice, who exactly is this “we”– as in who is the “we” that decides if there should be intervention and who is the “we” that carries it out? It turns out, it is the same “we” who decides that “we” have the power to grope “our” genitalia before boarding an airplane and “we” have the right to invade our private property with armed thugs if “we” are suspected of smoking a non-approved plant. And this is the problem…