01 Sep 2009

Are We All Utilitarians Now?

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Besides my disagreement with their conclusions, there is something similar in Tyler Cowen’s recent defense of the Paulson Plan, and Roger Koppl’s defense of Ted Kennedy. Both eschew arguments from natural rights or principles, and justify particular instances of the growth of the federal government by speculating on its possible net benefits. As I say, I disagree with them that their utilitarian calculus is correct, but my point here is to underscore that they don’t even acknowledge the big philosophical move they’re making.

For example, here’s Tyler on the efficacy of the bailouts, and why the TARP should have been more pleasing to libertarians than non-TARP:

For insolvent banks…the alternative to those bailouts is calling in deposit insurance and the bankruptcy courts, both of which are, for better or worse, forms of government intervention. In particular today’s bankruptcy procedures are ill-suited for disposing of a large financial institution in a timely manner and this can be considered a form of gross government failure.

So if you’re “opposed to financial bailouts,” as a libertarian, you’re not for the market. You’re saying that one scheme for governmental disposition is better than another. [Bold by RPM]

Other people have done a good job rebutting this claim; see Pete Boettke and Steve Horwitz. (Also David R. Henderson sets the record straight regarding Tyler’s questionable assertions about Milton Friedman’s position on bank bailouts.) But I want to focus on Tyler’s assertion that I’ve put in bold above.

Even if Tyler’s predictions about FDIC etc. were correct, it doesn’t automatically follow that he gets to tell bailout opponents that they are “not for the market.” That step involves a very dubious philosophical commitment that goes far beyond one’s economic theories.

Let’s change the context. Anyone who took an intro to philosophy class probably heard the thought experiment (apparently based on a true story) of the American tourists getting captured by South American guerrillas. The rebel leader lines up a bunch of villagers who are opposed to his group’s criminal activities, and then the leader puts a gun in the hands of one of the terrified Americans. “It’s your lucky day,” the rebel leader says. “You get to shoot these traitors to the cause. But if you don’t, I will order my men to shoot not only them, but also their wives and children. Your choice.”

Now this is a very complicated problem, and of course everybody tries to weasel out of it by saying, “I’d shoot the rebel leader!” etc. But when it comes down to it–what if you have to choose between shooting some innocent people, or allowing them plus even more people to die?–a lot of people say they wouldn’t pull the trigger. And you know what? I think many philosophers think that’s a dandy answer.

So notice in his discussion, not only does Tyler say you should pull the trigger (or at least, you should root for the American to pull the trigger), but he spends all his time focusing on what happens if you don’t. He doesn’t even feel the need to discuss the philosophical point that it’s correct to support a violation of rights if you think doing so will prevent an even greater violation of rights.


Roger Koppl does a very similar thing when praising Ted Kennedy for supporting the Civil Rights Act. When in the comments I pointed out that a lot of libertarians don’t endorse the Act because it involved an expansion of federal power, he answered:

Anyway, I’m not a libertarian, so I guess you and I won’t have the same opinion about which bits of civil rights legislation were and which were not infringements on liberty. Fair enough. Still, I would have thought the restrictions on liberty caused by Jim Crow were so huge, deeply unfair and inequitable, and of such great material importance to black Southerners that killing Jim Crow alone outweighed the negatives, before we even get to stuff like women’s rights or the conditions of blacks in the rest of the country. OTOH you seem to doubt…I confess, I don’t quite “get” that. I don’t quite see where the doubtful points are in assigning relative weights here even when I defer to you on what bits are pro-liberty and what bits are anti-liberty.

One issue you raise is centralizing power in Washington. That’s an issue for me too. But in my mind you’ve got to trade it off against the risk of arbitrary local authority. Local authority was arbitrary and discretionary for black folks and the civil rights movement improved that situation greatly. (Didn’t fix it by long stretch, but that’s a separate matter.) Hayek teaches (rightly IMHO) that the big enemy is arbitrary authority rather than, say, size of government. Liberalism is against power. Well, black folks under Jim Crow were subject to lots of arbitrary authority. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a pretty fair representation of how it really worked under the old system. Actually, it was worse than her story represented as whites might literally get away with murder if the victim was black.

Thus, we’re talking about life and death stuff, basic raw arbitrary power, and similar core issues. I’m not getting the intuition for why stuff like obliging restauranteurs to serve all races or shifting some power from state to federal government overwhelms that. [Bold by RPM]

Again, I don’t here want to argue whether the Act “on balance” contributed to more or fewer rights violations. I’m just pointing out that Koppl doesn’t even “get” the notion that someone could be opposed to an admitted, systematic violation of rights, even if the object is to prevent other people from having their rights violated.

Is it a little weird that even among very philosophical, classical liberals, we are so casually assuming that the ends justify the means? Can we at least talk about this? I’m pretty sure the philosophers aren’t settled on the matter, and in fact, I think a lot of them say the answer is a resounding, “No!”

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