“Why I Am a Utilitarian,” or “A Round-About Response to Ben David”

Reason magazine published a review of some new book about the Tea Party, edited by two Berkeley (!) sociologists (!!).  I haven’t read the book, but one passage from the review stands out:

Postel, the author of The Populist Vision, asks whether Tea Party groups are authentically “populist.” Setting the tone for the book, he argues that the Tea Parties cannot be legitimately understood within the late 19th century populist tradition, which he characterizes as “a democratic movement for economic justice,” because they stand fundamentally opposed to many of the original populist reforms. Instead, he says, the movement has to be understood within a right-wing history that includes the likes of the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Authentic populists would address the concerns of the middle class, he continues, while Tea Partiers are free-market fundamentalists in league with a corporate elite, struggling to dissolve what remains of a middle-class safety net. “In this time of crisis of political economy,” he writes, “where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard?” (Emphasis added.)

This type of argument should be familiar to anyone who has ever spent time on a college campus.  It is also, in my opinion, one of the Left’s most annoying conceits.  It is an effort to win a debate by simply defining terms in your own favor and thereby pigeonholing the other side.  Briefly, the argument (in an admittedly cleaned-up and idealized form) goes something like this:

  1. I support Social Security because it helps the middle class.
  2. You might not support Social Security, and that’s fine, to each his own.  But if you don’t support Social Security, that means you don’t think that helping the middle class is a big priority.  Maybe you think that “only the strong should survive” or maybe you believe in some abstract right to be free from taxation.
  3. Given the above, people who support policies that help people will support Social Security, whereas people who believe in following some abstract philosophy, regardless of the horrible impact it might have on the most vulnerable classes, will oppose it.

Admittedly, conservatives and libertarians often don’t do themselves any favors in these debates.  Often, they will reply with something like, “Sure, Social Security helps people, but ‘helping’ some people by extorting the taxpayers is still immoral!”

I’m not saying that that reply is wrong (in fact, I’m fairly sure that I believe it to be right).  But the vast majority of people won’t find it convincing–most people are practical consequentialists rather than philosophers.  So in defining terms this way, the leftist almost always wins.

One of the most important projects for conservatives and libertarians, then, is not to frame arguments in terms of morality or deontology, but rather in terms of consequences and utility.  It was in this vein that Ludwig von Mises wrote (as I recall) to Fritz Machlup to say something along the lines of: “Socialism is not wrong because it is a form of theft.  If socialism were beneficial we should all hurry to embrace it.  The reason we oppose socialism so harshly is because it is destructive.” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.  I can’t find the page number–it’s a very long book!)

In a sense, this is what conservatives have been doing all along (though they might not like the term “utility”).  Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was based primarily on the bad consequences that he thought (correctly) the Revolution would engender.  But libertarians tend to get caught up in some of the abstract rationalism of philosophers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard and start to miss the point of what they should be arguing all along.  They think that, if they can prove that Social Security is theft, then they have refuted all the arguments in favor of it.

But in so doing, they misapprehend why we oppose theft in the first place.  Theft is not wrong just because it is theft; rather, it is wrong because its acceptance would undermine the basic values necessary to a functioning society.  To a certain extent, this proposition is so basic that it doesn’t need restating.  But it is important to remember it, because, when we phrase things this way, we can easily see that if it were possible to think up a form of theft that actually led to beneficial consequences, it is not at all clear that we should oppose it.

Moreover, I think that this understanding of “utilitarian” libertarianism is pretty much in keeping with Rand and Rothbard’s basic methodology (even if many of their other followers would disagree).  Both of their philosophies are essentially variants of natural law theory, whereby we can deduce both the nature of the human being and the nature of his or her environment, and thereby understand what kind of society is best for human beings.  Rand and Rothbard both concluded that a society that prohibits coercive force is best.  I certainly agree.  But the key point for our analysis is not the coercion is per se wrong.  It is that coercion leads to bad consequences, and, given the nature of humans and of the world, its rejection will leave people better off.

On this note, there is an exciting new undercurrent in libertarian thought–“bleeding heart libertarianism“–which attempts to use the methodology of left-wing statists like John Rawls (most notably, the idea that justice requires that all social institutions should be judged by whether they benefit a society’s least well-off members)  to reach libertarian conclusions.  I plan to have a post on this sometime soon.  Moreover, John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness is excellent exposition of this new development–particularly the “Hit Parade” section of chapter 5, where he shows how most of the greatest libertarian thinkers throughout history have been motivated by a desire to help society’s most vulnerable.  The chapter even includes Ayn Rand! (The “everyman” character Eddie Willers of Atlas Shrugged ends the book stranded in the desert after the world has fallen apart, which demonstrates how rejection of Rand’s libertarian philosophy tends to hurt everyone, not just the brilliant and heroic.)

Well, this is a lot to say in reply to a review of an inconsequential book.  But I think it also answers some of Ben’s criticisms of my own rationalism–or at least clarifies what I mean by “rationalism.”  Whereas Ben seems to think of people like Descartes and Diderot when he thinks of rationalists (that is, people who think they can deduce the entire world of knowledge by pondering in their studies), I base my rationalism on natural law theorists following in the tradition St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the later “practical” utilitarians.  That is, I take reason as my means of understanding human beings and understanding the world around them, and then applying that understanding to deduce what kinds of social arrangements are best suited to human beings’ needs.

This analysis will be inherently utilitarian.  And by its very utilitarianism, it also exposes the conceit of certain campus leftists who believe that caring for the poor or worrying about real world consequences inevitably lead one to embrace the nanny state.

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6 thoughts on ““Why I Am a Utilitarian,” or “A Round-About Response to Ben David”

  1. nyr saelc

    How are you defining utilitarianism? You can’t just throw the term out there without defining it because there are different strands of it. Also, I seriously question your invoking of Rawls. Can you please further explain how Rawls furthers a libertarian cause because I think it’s a serious stretch…

  2. Kelse Moen

    I am defining “utilitarianism” as basically judging things by their beneficial consequences. Of course, I understand that there are different strands. But for the purposes of this argument, the important thing is to distinguish this consequence-based approach from the more deontological ones, as I discussed.

    On Rawls, please understand that this isn’t “my” argument–I am restating what other people have said, although from what I know of Rawls I think the argument has a good deal of plausibility to it. The argument is that Rawls basically misapplied his own methodology and that if he had consistently applied it he would be a libertarian. That is, if institutions are judged by the degree to which they help the least well-off members of society, then libertarianism accomplishes this much better than the big-government egalitarianism that Rawls supported, whatever Rawls himself may have actually thought. We can see this in the fact that the poor in freer countries are much better off than the poor in countries like Russia or China or whatever. So, if people in Rawls’s original position really understand economics, public choice theory, and the principles motivating human behavior, they will understand that they would all be better off under libertarianism. For a fuller argument to this effect, you could google Loren Lomasky, “Libertarianism at Twin Harvard” which shows how a counterfactual Rawls could applies real Rawls’s exact same methodology to reach libertarian conclusions.

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