A Correspondence Between Two Marines (Installment Two)
Posted on August 20, 2013
I expended the past 48 hours or so debating a Marine on Facebook. He’s a friend of a friend, so I can’t vouch for him, but he seems like a good and smart guy. He’s training to be firefighter at the moment, but he plays the role of impassioned libertarian populist on his off hours (from what I can tell).
As he puts it, “It will take a very long time to compare our notes on history, and I am sure an educator has a few more notes than a firefighter.” This is important to keep in mind while reading what follows. Given the nature of our present vocations, I enjoy the upper hand in this debate. That said, I’ve edited the exchange with this in mind, and tried my best to value fluidity and learning over any rigorous interest in replicating the conversation exactly as it went down. I’ve also changed my interlocutor’s name, at his request.
I hope this serves, if nothing else, as an example of what civil discourse looks like, even between two people of vastly different stripes. I also hope it raises the bar concerning what takes place on Facebook. And finally, I hope it expands the definition of “educator,” especially for the professors and graduate students among us.
I can’t speak for libertarians but I can speak for myself. The morality of voluntary exchange is a fundamental belief of mine. If I do not wish to pay for a good or service, then I should not be compelled in anyway or by anyone to do so. This is not complicated. Politics may be complicated, but you should not disparage consistent beliefs. In fact, you should encourage them… I believe in the benefits of non-coercion… I haven’t heard an argument that has changed my mind on the morality of voluntary exchange versus the immorality of involuntary force. But you can message me more articles and I’ll read them.
I’m writing this after a night of drinking, but here goes:
Let’s start with a simple metaphor. One person is born into a cage. Another person is born out in the open. According to your philosophy (i.e. “negative liberty”), all is good as long as neither the person born into the cage nor the person born out in the open is “coerced” by the other. I call bullshit. I say that’s a philosophy not worth having. I say that any philosophy (and world) worth having is one that obliges the person born out in the open to do what he can to help his brother or sister escape from the cage.
To this, you may say, “Fuck the guy or gal in the cage.” To that, I’ve got nothing. Our moral centers are incommensurable so we might as well not pretend otherwise. On the other hand, you might say, “This metaphor doesn’t apply to the real world. It’s a red herring.” At that point, I once again call bullshit. If you look at the stats, particularly the stats concerning social mobility, this metaphor exists millions of times over, in every major city and most small towns across the nation. And this metaphor has become all the more relevant as the kinds of policies you presumably support have become all the more prevalent. I’m talking about the policies of the past 40 years, or what historians and political theorists call the age of “Neoliberalism.” Here’s a visual of what Neoliberalism looks like.
If you have the time, I also recommend you read up on the debate between Robert Nozick (a “libertarian”) and John Rawls (a “liberal”) on questions of coercion, freedom, and justice. Here’s a primer.
P.S. I’m willing to debate you till kingdom come, so have at it.
P.P.S. I’ve been talking to you on moral philosophy grounds. In other words, I’ve been assuming you’re concerned about what is “right,” as opposed to what is best for you. But let’s assume you don’t give a shit about what is right or wrong, or let’s assume there’s no way in hell I’m going to convince you that my “right” is your “right.” Instead, I’m left with no option but to appeal to your self-interest. In that case, I still think I win. Let’s put aside highfalutin questions of altruism or “distributive justice.” Let’s just talk selfish man to selfish man. In that context, I say to you this — a nation that embraces my policy agenda over your policy agenda is a nation in which we’ll both be better off. Here’s why.
Ok, I’m typing on my phone so I’ll keep it quick. I’ve seen the Nozick/Rawls debate and I suggest you read Thomas Palmer’s thoughts on negative and positive rights. Rights are substantive or natural in nature. My earlier point was about a consistent belief in free exchange and its benefits for everyone. So…
The man in the cage gets a guy with a gun to talk to the guy in the open. The guy with the gun says to the guy born out in the open, “Whatever it is you or your family did to get you here, I don’t care. Give me the key so I can release the guy from the cage. If you don’t give me the key then I’m going to put you in a cage of your own.”
Also, the last 40 years has not been an age of freedom. And economic inequality is a good thing if you’re talking about income inequality and a bad thing if you’re talking about inequality of consumer choice.
Thanks for the smart and prompt reply:
1. Re the rights debate, it’s endless and complex, without any “smoking gun” on either side. I’ll just say the more you read up on it, the more endless and complex it becomes. I’m glad to hear you read your Thomas palmer. (I once read him, too.) But you’re doing yourself a disservice by just reading what a libertarian thinks about the Rawls/Nozick debate. You should go directly to the source.
2. The cage metaphor is intended to point to the fundamental Achilles’ heel of “negative liberty.” Namely, the anti-coercion principle privileges whoever is “born into the open.” This isn’t just theory. It’s history. In the modern world of corporate Capitalism, wherever and whenever the “negative rights” conception of liberty is enforced (and yes, it’s enforced) without any consideration to “positive rights,” social mobility goes the way of the highway, permanent inheritance classes and underclasses are further ingrained, the middle class is squeezed, and anything resembling a free and liberal order is gradually replaced by plutocracy — not pure liberty.
Let’s move a few steps further with the cage metaphor, so as to make my point more recognizable. Assume the person born into the open holds the key for the cage. He’s not responsible for originally imprisoning the other person, but he still holds the key. The person inside the cage asks the person in the open to please take the time and effort to open up the cage. The person outside the cage refuses, but instead says:
”I’m not going to free you from the cage, but if you spend 8 hours a day filling out this paperwork for me — or pushing this or that lever on this or that machine for me — I’ll provide you with just enough food to survive in the cage, at least for a time.”
The two shake hands and the deal proceeds. Then a third person comes along and says to the guy in the open:
“We need to get this person out of the cage. Do you happen to have the key?”
And the guy in the open says:
”Yes, I have the key, but it’s a real hassle maneuvering it through that hole. In fact, it’s such a complicated task it would take me a whole day to open up the thing, and quite frankly, I’d rather not. Besides, the guy in the cage is getting a lot of work done for me, and I’m giving him food in return.”
The third person says:
“That’s immoral. You have an obligation to open up the cage.”
The guy in the open responds:
“Not gonna happen.”
According to a dogmatic “negative rights” conception of liberty, there’s nothing to see here. Only a more expansive notion of liberty (i.e. “positive liberty”) allows for a framework by which (a) the person inside the cage enjoys the possibility of escaping from the cage and (b) the community at large can actually converse and trade on something nearing an even playing field.
I’m guessing you’re now inclined to refine the metaphor to your own advantage. Go for it, although I’m stubborn, so I’ll likely keep the ball rolling. At some point, we’ll end up arriving at the real world. So as to save us the time and effort, here’s what the real world looks like.
3. I wholeheartedly agree that the past 40 years hasn’t proven an age of freedom, but that’s only because my notion of freedom ventures well beyond the anti-coercion principle. However, most historians, political theorists, or policy wonks agree that the past 40 years has proven the heyday for “negative rights” conceptions of liberty, both in mind and deed. There are a bazillion books and articles on Neoliberalism. Here are two that I read recently and are quite good.
4. This debate has proceeded from the presumption that I’m for “big government” and you’re apparently for no government. But I know my feelings on “big government” are complicated and mostly despairing, and I suspect you’re not an unqualified anarchist. (To be consistent with the anti-coercion principle, however, you’d have to be something pretty darn close to one.) In other words, we both favor specific policies in the real world that can’t be easily pigeonholed as “big government,” “small government,” or “no government” policies. For what it’s worth, here’s a site that drives at my preferred policies, which are noticeably more decentralized, local, and individual and community-empowering than the status quo.
5. I’m not sure what you mean by income inequality vs. inequality of consumer choice, but I will say (again) that gross income inequality and wealth inequality are anything but “good things,” no matter how you slice it. See that Richard Wilkinson video.
Concerning the cage metaphor, the man with the gun is important and relevant. I don’t think altruism is truly altruism if you are forced to be altruistic. So you are right — to leave the man in the cage would be immoral. However, the man with the gun is engaged in an immoral act as well…
I’m not an academic, I’m just a dude with an opinion….
You are also right on number 4. I think we agree more than might be expected. That said, income inequality should never be a barometer of justice. Equality in consumer choice is more relevant….
If you look at the evidence, you see that we are less capitalist today than we were 40 years ago. We have much more government now than we did before. I think there is a relationship, also, between the end of the Gold Standard and the overwhelming increase in government spending. I believe our monetary system is the biggest culprit… and it enables the government to exacerbate things… I wonder what you think was the cause in the high standard of living and unprecedented growth in wealth in the United States. I also wonder what you think was the common denominator in places like the Soviet Union or East Germany… it is undeniable that our growth is a result of our free enterprise system. You can’t say it’s because we have bigger government, can you? ….
The main schools of economics … don’t really debate issues like wealth redistribution… all informed people agree on the nature of our broken monetary system… aside from maybe the Brookings Institution, all major think tanks are opposed to wealth redistribution….
Back to the guy in the cage… I think what you fail to see is the rich man’s need of the poor man. Many egalitarians misrepresent labor employment because they don’t concede that it is a voluntary transaction, like any other exchange of goods and services. In a voluntary transaction both parties are equal because it is voluntary. The wages of the poor man are determined by both parties, as well as by the given demands of the market… You make money out to be a tool for exploitation, I disagree. Money is simply a signal of information between two parties in a voluntary exchange. The idea that the poor man needs his earnings more than the rich man needs his employee’s services is misguided. Remember, the rich man needs the services of the employee in order to become rich (or stay rich). And everyone else benefits in the process.
Go ahead and reach into your pockets. If you pull out an iPhone or Galaxy or whatever, go ahead and smile. When we let the market set wages, we guarantee the best quality of a good or service for the lowest cost… there is a reason poor people in our country can afford iPhones. This is what I mean when I say I’m fine with income inequality but troubled by the inequality of consumer choice.
I like the word “local.” I can’t say I am a pure libertarian because in my opinion a pure libertarian would embrace a constitution mandating that all levels of government adhere to the laws established. I think our structure of government (or at least the intent of that structure) is what has made our nation so special… I will always advocate for less government at any level, however I will never abolish the right to determine how one is governed. I think this is where we might agree. I think democracy works best at the local levels… If you meant “local” in the way I thought you did then I can’t imagine you voting for any party other than the Libertarians. Most Libertarian candidates believe in limiting the federal government from intervening in state and local experimentation.
I’m going to respond to you by the numbers. My apologies for the length. I tried to keep this as short as possible, but we’re covering a lot of ground, and I think it’s important you engage with a number of the arguments levied below. I’m an educator by trade and training, and unlike many of my peers, I believe educators have an obligation to educate (and be educated), wherever and however. This includes on Facebook. In that spirit…
1. The intended implication of the cage metaphor has nothing to do with altruism and everything to do with fairness. Like Rawls, I define justice as fairness, so when it comes to debating questions of social and political organization, it’s often fairness with which I’m most concerned.
Re the “man with the gun,” any law requires coercion as such, so unless you’re an unqualified anarchist, which I don’t believe you are, then you have to explain why the specific law in question — one that guarantees the person in the cage is liberated from the cage — is illegitimate.
2. Everyone is just a “dude with an opinion,” and I don’t think being or not being an “academic” carries any decisive weight concerning the validity of one’s argument. That said, I do think some opinions are more informed, studied, and thoughtful than others, and academic opinions tend to exhibit the latter qualities given the fact academics spend the majority of their time reading endless amounts of books, peer-reviewed articles, studies, and primary sources on their given field, not to mention engaging in original research of their own that is equally scrutinized by their peers, all of whom disagree quite vigorously but within professional norms of critical inquiry and empirical proof. This doesn’t mean they are always to be trusted (of course not!), but all things being equal, they often prove more reliable than people who just read blog posts, opinion pieces, and the occasional book written by other people who just read blog posts, opinion pieces, and the occasional book… often by people who already agree with them.
3. Yes, we agree on more than we might imagine, particularly when it comes to our mutual desire to live in a society where each individual and community enjoys the utmost freedom to live their lives as they please. Our disagreements clearly lie in how to get there.
4. If one defines justice as fairness (as I do), and if one is convinced that a certain level of income and wealth inequality renders any possibility of a reasonably fair society impossible (as I am), then one is forced to look at levels of income and wealth inequality when considering the justice or injustice of any given society.
5. I don’t believe our disagreements center on whether or not we support something called “Capitalism” or “the free market.” They center on how to optimize freedom for individuals and communities in a fair and/or just manner. If we stick to answering this question, then there’s really no need to enter the aforementioned semantic rabbit hole.
6. If your claim about there being “more government” in recent decades concerns an increase in spending and/or an increase in aggregate regulations, you’re correct – government is “bigger” now than it was 40 years ago. Although this doesn’t get you nearly as far in your argument as you might imagine. For one, as population, infrastructure, and the overall economy grows, and as technology forges a far more complex social interdependence, the “size” of government naturally expands. It’s for this reason the Neoliberal “revolutions” of both Thatcher and Reagan failed at reversing the actual size of government. See this.
Furthermore, I’m not in principle interested in government becoming “bigger” or “smaller,” just as I’m not in principle interested in corporations becoming “bigger” or “smaller.” What I am interested in is working toward governments and corporations that are simply “better,” and by “better” I mean more democratically accountable, more efficient, more sustainable, and more geared toward the fair and just wellbeing of the citizenry at large. It is for this reason I am troubled by the Neoliberal reforms of the past four decades, reforms that have been guided (more or less) by negative understandings of freedom. It’s a philosophy that presumes a mythical “free market” is natural and free of coercion, and therefore all laws, regulations, or institutions that intervene in the market are to be challenged, mitigated, and ultimately struck from the books. In the real world, this has amounted to an increasingly regressive tax code, deregulation, deunionization, privatization, and a shift in funding from democratically accountable social investments, institutions, infrastructure, and public services to undemocratic and profit-seeking enterprises — often in pernicious industries like national security, mass incarceration, surveillance, and dirty energy — that in turn has resulted in a radical redistribution of wealth upward, a squeezed middle class, government capture by plutocratic interests, as well as an increasingly inefficient and unstable financial and consumer market, not to mention ecological devastation.
I don’t have the time to speak at length on each issue, but I have collected a series of links for you to peruse concerning this big picture. Take note of exactly where and how government spending has increased and where and how it has decreased. The devil is in the details, especially when it comes to our healthcare expenditures, which comprise a good chunk of net government spending, and which are (by far) the highest in the advanced democratic world, for precisely the reasons a libertarian like yourself would be least inclined to imagine.
BIG GOVERNMENT AND BIG CAPITALISM: See this.
FINANCIAL DEREGULATION: See this.
ENERGY DEREGULATION: See this.
AIRLINE DEREGULATION: See this.
EDUCATION: See this.
MEDIA: See this.
7. Re the Gold standard, I suggest you (re)read your Milton Friedman, or pretty much any professional economist for that matter. The fact of the matter is, outside the Austrian school, returning to the Gold Standard is (rightly) considered a kooky idea, and so is returning to fixed interest rates. It was Friedman, after all, who first convinced his fellow economists that a floating exchange rate was necessary in a highly globalized capitalist world.
8. I’m in favor of markets, and like you, I believe the “common denominator” in places like the Soviet union and North Korea does involve a conspicuous disregard for the market mechanism. Our disagreements do not concern being “pro-market” or “anti-market,” or even “pro-capitalist” or “anti-Capitalist.” (Although I’m more hostile to global capitalism as presently conceived than I am to market economics.) Our disagreements reside with the kind of market or capitalist society we would like to live in. In sum, my beef is not with the market, or even capitalism per se. It is with Neoliberalism.
It’s also worth noting that when comparing the various kinds of capitalism under review, more “social democratic” or even “democratic socialist” capitalisms often prove more impressive with regards to living standards, social justice, and often even growth. This rings true when comparing different nations at one point in time, but also when comparing the same nation(s) through time. For example, if you compare “welfare state” American capitalism (c. 1943-1973) to “neoliberal” American capitalism (c. 1973-PRESENT), the former beats the latter, even as a matter of growth. See this, this, and this.
9. If you were to read the original Liberal and classical economists, the Marginalists, the Institutionalists, the first Chicago School, the Ordoliberals, the founding Neoliberals, the second Chicago school, and the later wave of Neoliberals — all of whom represent the main body of the market tradition — you would discover that my own policy preferences are more in line with the bulk of the tradition than yours are… with the exception of the Austrian school and latter-day Neoliberals. Again, good primers on all this would be Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion or Daniel Stedman Jones’ Masters of the Universe. Each makes clear the vast gap between current popular notions of market theory in the United States, and actual market theory. In addition, see this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.
10. Re your claim that the economics profession is not concerned with wealth distribution, this is false. Economists, particularly macroeconomists, and especially political economists, are constantly factoring in income and wealth distribution, not to mention other distributive metrics, into their models and theories. Furthermore, the consensus on these subjects among economists, while hotly disputed, leans more in my favor than yours. See the “distributional issues” section here.
11. Re our “broken monetary system,” see the “macroeconomics” section here. Among macroeconomists, the emerging (and diverging) consensus leans even more starkly in my direction.
12. Re your claim that aside from maybe Brookings, all major think tanks oppose all forms of income or wealth distribution, again, this is false. Let’s just take two hot-button issues — say, social security and healthcare, both of which involve sizable transfer payments. See this and this.
Here’s a link with a list of major think tanks — right, left, and center. Browse their myriad policy proposals concerning transfer payments and get back to me.
13. I’m well aware of all the benefits of the market, which is why I am in favor of a market economy. Again, our debate centers around the kind of market economy we would like to see. As I’ve argued above, I believe both the history and the social science leaves me no choice but to shy away from the kind of the laissez-faire market you are selling. The cage metaphor is not intended to prosecute market economics as a whole. It is intended to prosecute a religious understanding of market economics that leaves no room for positive freedom. — the right to a basic fairness first among them. The kind of market society I prefer not only allows for everyone to own an iPhone, it also allows for everyone to own the direction of his or her life, which to me signifies real freedom. If the evidence demonstrates that Neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization, deunionization, and regressive taxation guarantee all the defects I raise above — essentially amounting to keeping the “poor person,” and now even the “middle-class person,” in a cage of social immobility, if not poverty or prison — then I am left with no alternative but to reject the Neoliberal agenda, which is what I’m doing.
Again, for just one example of what negative freedom detached from positive freedom looks like, see this.
14. Yes, I’m a fan of the “local,” but I also realize that we live in a world where it’s both impossible and unwise for all things to be localized. For example, the very innovative spirit you admire in market competition, the kind of spirit that guarantees the mass consumption of items like the iPhone, also requires organization at the state, national, and international levels. That’s one of the key points made in that C-span talk I sent you.
That said, if you want a better idea of my policy preferences, which again, would prove more local and decentralized than the status quo, read this.
It will take a very long time to compare our notes on history, and I am sure an educator has a few more notes than a firefighter. Instead, I am going to stick to the question of morality. You are hitting many points, but you’re avoiding the original argument about the justice of property rights versus the justice of wealth redistribution….
Re the rise in spending in the past 40 year, this fact only furthers my point about the moral hazard involved in a post-Gold-Standard world….
Not to wax too philosophical, but I think the power required of government is tyrannical by nature, and a government guided by egalitarian principles in not immune to this….
I wouldn’t say I am for corporations any more than you are, but I think I am for consumers more than you are….
I think the argument that iPhones or any other mass consumer product requires government at all levels is wrongheaded. Yes, producers need the government to protect their ownership rights, but the notion that mass production and consumption wouldn’t be possible with mass government — this hasn’t been proven one way or the other. The same goes for the claim about infrastructure and transportation structures. History hasn’t given us a chance to test my hypothesis. The most we can both say is that the private sector currently relies on government just as much as the government relies on the private sector….
I am not an anarchist. I think we have rights that must be protected, mainly life, liberty, and property. The reason you have a right to property is because property is obtained through voluntary exchange instead of force. Concerning the man in the cage, you cannot avoid the man with the gun. The man with the gun is immoral because he is forcing the rich man to give up what was gained through free exchange. The rich man is forced by the man with the gun to surrender his property or effort for nothing in return. If he refuses, then he is placed in a real cage. This is not fair. If the poor man has a right to the rich man’s wealth, then the rich man does not have a right to his own wealth. In effect, individuals do not enjoy a right to property….
Also, if you’re serious about fairness, then why aren’t you in favor of total wealth equality? Why should anyone be allowed to have more than anyone else?
Alright, Norman, I’m winded, so after this, I’ll let you have the last word. And since you’ve got the fire academy to attend to, and I’ve got books and papers to attend to, I’ll keep this one (relatively) brief.
Re the cage metaphor, you’re not an anarchist, so our disagreement doesn’t pertain to the guy with the gun. Assuming you believe the state reserves the right to a monopoly of force, which is by definition what it means not to be an anarchist, then you too believe the “guy with the gun” is necessary. The question, therefore, becomes when he’s necessary and when he’s not. That’s where all the other crap we’ve been debating comes into play. I think, given the history and the evidence, the “guy with the gun” is also necessary in order to maintain some level of basic fairness, which means some level of basic income and wealth equality. This brings us to your second question…
Re your point about the right to property, I believe it’s a provisional right, meaning it proceeds from the more substantive right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I support property rights to the extent they support these latter rights. But the former right isn’t inviolable, especially once you consider the preceding metaphor, where it becomes clear that if the “right to property” takes precedence over the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then you end up with a situation where the lucky uncaged few exploit and rule the unlucky caged many. This is the majority history of humankind, up until folks like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill came along and presented us with bodies of thought where both property rights and the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” could coexist, with emphasis on the latter. Despite the rhetorical and material violence done to the liberal market tradition by the likes of Friedman and his like-minded fellows, Smith was a keen opponent of oppression and exploitation, and his humanistic and enlightenment sensibility was not in line with the politics of most latter-day libertarians who claim his mantle. For example, can you imagine the Cato Institute issuing a statement which includes these words?
“When the regulation… is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable, but it is sometimes otherwise when in favor of the masters.” — Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
With the exception of the second neoliberals, the Austrian School, and a handful of laissez faire theorists scattered throughout, most of the liberal market tradition allows for or demands far more intervention than someone like yourself is willing to admit. This brings us to your final point….
Re where to draw the line on fairness, there’s a Kurt Vonnegut short story that makes your point beautifully. It’s called Harrison Bergeron, and it opens with this:
“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”
So we agree on this — neither of us wants to live in a world like that. But it’s interesting and instructive to note Vonnegut’s politics, which were far from laissez faire. In other words, it’s necessary to both oppose the dreary world of total conformity Vonnegut lays out in Harrison Bergeron while simultaneously opposing the dreary world of gross inequity and violence that we live in today. As in all things, it’s a balancing act. And it’s with regard to this balancing act — not the “guy with the gun” — that our disagreements begin and end.
I like these final arguments more than your earlier comments, seeing as they identify in simple terms what you are arguing. I won’t argue further because the discussion has come full circle. Maybe we can link up when I am on the East Coast these coming holidays? We can argue, drink, fist fight, and learn. I usually ask educators this question because I enjoy their answers. Do you think a PhD in Economics offers a better lesson on history than a PhD in History offers on economics?
Absolutely. Just let me know when you’re in the area and we’ll work something out. I’m a better drunk than I am a debater, or at least that’s what I tell myself.
Re your question, that’s a great one.
Short answer: No. That’s why I went the history route as opposed to the economics route. I think the history of a thing (which includes its economic history) is more decisive and encompassing than the economics of a thing. But let’s leave that one for the drinks…