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Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism

Summary:
My thanks to BHL for the invitation to give an overview of Governing Least: a New England Libertarianism. (OUP may have copies if Amazon is out.) A one-sentence summary of each chapter can be found here. The goal of this book is to promote two ideas, one substantive, one methodological. Substantively, the book defends a version of libertarianism with modest moral foundations that doesn’t make any appeal to absolute rights. Instead, the suggestion is that doubts about burden-shifting are what motivate resistance to an expansive welfare state. Methodologically, I join those calling for a “thicker” approach to political philosophy, one that embraces economics, history, law, and politics in addition to the usual logic chopping and conceptual analysis. (There is something very odd

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My thanks to BHL for the invitation to give an overview of Governing Least: a New England Libertarianism. (OUP may have copies if Amazon is out.) A one-sentence summary of each chapter can be found here.

The goal of this book is to promote two ideas, one substantive, one methodological. Substantively, the book defends a version of libertarianism with modest moral foundations that doesn’t make any appeal to absolute rights. Instead, the suggestion is that doubts about burden-shifting are what motivate resistance to an expansive welfare state. Methodologically, I join those calling for a “thicker” approach to political philosophy, one that embraces economics, history, law, and politics in addition to the usual logic chopping and conceptual analysis. (There is something very odd about books on Marx’s theory of history, say, that make no mention of stuff that happened in the past, and yet that sort of thing is still too common in academic philosophy.) The book focuses mostly on libertarian views of redistribution and economic justice, since these disputes seem to run deeper than disagreement over drug legalization or soda bans.

Some libertarians–often economists–are utilitarians in disguise, and embrace a minimal state simply because they think it promotes economic growth and ultimately the general welfare. By contrast, the philosophical tradition associated with Robert Nozick grounds the minimal state in moral constraints on how we may treat people. I follow in this latter tradition, but two problems have tended to make it a lonely path: the issue of how strong these constraints are supposed to be–if they’re too weak they don’t impede redistribution, but if they’re super strong they look implausible–and the question of property. This question in turn breaks up into several puzzles over things like where ownership comes from if not positive law (which majorities are free to reshape), or the fact that a great deal of land and property was at some point misappropriated, suggesting libertarians should, if anything, favor massive redistribution.

I try to face up to some of these difficulties by developing a theory of moral thresholds (as opposed to absolute rights) which can be breached, but only when enough is at stake, and whose breaching generates residual obligations of restitution, compensation, sympathy, and the like. Intuitively, the idea is that there are instances in which I may harm you or your interests in certain ways. Contrary to the absolutist, I may purloin your laptop to placate a robber threatening to kill me. But that isn’t the end of the story–if I’ve injured you or your interests there are all kinds of things I then owe you. I don’t just get to transfer my bad luck to you. These residual obligations prevent me from announcing that you are responsible for my welfare and commandeering your possessions, even when some moral threshold is met. And the problem, ultimately, is that recognizing these kinds of moral structures is incompatible with anything like an expansive welfare state. Without going into detail here, implementing entitlement programs as rights against fellow citizens means overlooking these residual obligations, even in cases where moral thresholds are met, which they often are not.

The core of libertarianism, on this view, isn’t a fear of “second-handers” or infringements on sacrosanct rights; it’s resistance to the idea that I may shift my misfortunes onto others without remainder. And because all this strikes me as quite different from the kind of story you get in Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick, I think of it as having a “New England” flavor, the inspiration being figures like Emerson and Thoreau, who emphasized self-reliance and “governing least,” though of course the vocabulary and taxonomy aren’t important.

On the other hand, many people think that what’s wrong with libertarianism involves the very process by which some end up better off than others. In response, I take up several related puzzles in the theory of property. One claim I make is that Locke misunderstood his own theory of property-through-labor, and that what he should have done (and perhaps implicitly was doing) was to offer a catalogue of the many and varied moral considerations that strengthen your claim to control some asset relative to mine. Labor is just one and perhaps not a very important one–others include creation, discovery, priority, transfer, and the Lockean proviso. It is hard, as I argue, to deny that some such list exists, and the items on the list make property (for the most part) a moral phenomenon, not just a conventional or legal category.

Another idea about property I take up is that advanced economies are largely service-oriented (by both GDP and employment), not agricultural or even industrial. This means that most accounts of initial acquisition–those punishing discussions of enclosing land, of coconut islands and all that–are of marginal relevance. A thorough account will touch on initial acquisition to be sure, but any theory that treats it as the central case is confused. The deep question isn’t whether it’s okay to redistribute land removed from a commons, but whether it’s okay to take people’s stuff that they earn by drawing pictures, clacking on keyboards, or yelling into their phones (where their “stuff” is mostly numbers in a database).

Several of these early chapters contribute to the thicker broth for which I am making a plea. But the rest of the book takes up classical liberal themes in markets, history, and occasionally politics to further that ambition, and to see whether classical liberal ideas can be made to seem attractive from a wider perspective–political philosophies get judged holistically, not by neat syllogisms.

Some of the topics addressed are the moral significance of markets and forbidden exchanges (arguing that philosophers have tended to neglect the moral case for markets in their zeal to condemn various forms of exchange); the role that luck plays in a free market system (arguing that people have focused too narrowly on outcomes simpliciter instead of outcomes conditional on choice, which should be normative); the theory and practice of reparations (arguing that we should do some paying up, but that there are natural limits to what modern Greeks, say, might still owe the Trojans); capitalism and global justice (arguing that capitalist systems have brought about prosperity, especially for the worse off, and that international poverty mostly seems to reflect a historical default (which we should of course combat)); and political correctness (arguing that a certain amount of PC is actually a good idea, but that it’s crazy to pretend this doesn’t sometimes backfire–certain features of Germany and the EU provide an example).

These are of course grandiose themes to approach, and no doubt I treat them too briefly for most philosophers (and yet at far too great a length, my father laments). Even so, there is much more in the book, such as why utilitarianism often seems to involve self-deception, and why Battlestar Galactica is better than Star Trek. And I conclude by discussing utopia and Murray Rothbard’s question of whether, given a button that would implement your preferred social system overnight, you should press it (he would blister his thumb pushing, I would not). My thought is that there are several parameters along which we can idealize, defining how utopian we’re being in our thinking–about human nature, institutions like schools, the path-dependency of societies, and so on. We should, I conclude, idealize about people’s capacity to change their minds and respond to reason and persuasion, while being much more sober about changes in basic human drives or institutions, or in how quickly we can bring about change without self-defeating chaos and upheaval. This means, as I urge, that libertarians should try to use reason and persuasion in order slowly to bring about a system that works by reason and persuasion.

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