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Posts Tagged ‘liberalism’

Belief in freedom of the will has many beneficial consequences. Lab experiments have shown that people reading deterministic, anti-free will statements are more likely subsequently to cheat in their own favor. Researchers have even identified some of the chemical processes in the brain associated with diminished belief in free will:

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example, Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action. In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Philosophers have long debated whether moral responsibility requires a belief in freedom of the will. The case in favor holds that “ought implies can.” We only have the obligation to do things that it is under our power to do. Therefore, if it is not under our power to acbrain_regionst otherwise, we cannot have any obligation to do so. Apparently, this view is widespread.

Belief in free will may also have desirable political externalities. Determinist pragmatist John Dewey claimed that bad, old liberalism (what we here at Pileus would consider the good kind) was based on a misguided metaphysics of free will plus outdated social and economic models:

Insistence upon a metaphysical freedom of will is generally at its most strident pitch with those who despise knowledge of matters-of-fact. They pay for their contempt by halting and confined action. Glorification of freedom in general at the expensive of positive abilities in particular has often characterized the official creed of historic liberalism. Its outward sign is the separation of politics and law from economics. Much of what is called the “individualism” of the early nineteenth century has in truth little to do with the nature of individuals. It goes back to a metaphysics which held that harmony between man and nature can be taken for granted, if once certain artificial restrictions upon man are removed. Hence it neglected the necessity of studying and regulating industrial conditions so that a nominal freedom can be made an actuality. Find a man who believes that all men need is freedom from oppressive legal and political measures, and you have found a man who, unless he is merely obstinately maintaining his own private privileges, carries at the back of his head some heritage of the metaphysical doctrine of free-will, plus an optimistic confidence in natural harmony.

Source: John Dewey on Education, ed. Reginald D. Archambault (U of Chicago P), pp. 82-83

What a classic statement of turn-of-the-last-century pragmatist progressivism! What confidence in the ability of “politics and law” to “regulat[e] industrial conditions,” and in the obsolescence of “historic” traditions and beliefs!

Something of this view persists in modern-day progressivism as well. John Rawls’ difference principle, which is typically taken to justify a redistributive state, is based on the notion that no one deserves what she earns in the market, since differential skills, talents, work ethic, and even moral character are all unearned and therefore “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” We can throw all the outcomes of those characteristics into a big social pot and then reason about what to do with that pot.

Law professor John Pfaff makes a similar argument in defense of the PPACA:

Likely part of our opposition to viewing health care as a social good stems from the deep-seated libertarianism that runs through much of our political discourse. (It seems fair to say that even the American left is more libertarian than its European counterparts.) We view our money as our own (“I built it!”), and so if someone wants to take it—to, say, provide insurance for the less well-off—the justification burden is high. But there are two problems with that argument, one general and one perhaps more specific to health care issues.

More generally, our liberatarianism is likely tied to our perceptions that our economy is a meritocracy. Of course, we grossly overstate the degree of intergenerational mobility (the “American Dream” is more alive in Sweden than here), but there is an even deeper problem with the libertarian/meritocratic perspective: to a perhaps-disturbing degree, meritocracies reward generic lotteries.

In our economy, smart people rise to the top, but those smart people didn’t earn their intelligence, they were born with it. And to the extent that it was nurtured and cultured, that is due to their parents (since the returns on education are greatest when we are quite young, and thus before we are making many decisions on our own). And that work ethic? Again, significantly genetic and parental.

It’s true: you really didn’t build it, or at least not all of it. Which isn’t to argue for some sort of completely-leveling socialist state. Incentives are important, and those who take risks need rewards to compensate them. But once we realize that meritocracies are largely genetic and birth-parent lotteries, the moral claim on wealth becomes a bit weaker on the margin, and the moral argument for taking care of the less-lucky-in-birth becomes stronger.

But what happens to people who believe that everything about them, down to their own work ethic and their moral character, is unearned? According to psychology experiments, they slack off. They lie, cheat, and steal. And they vote for big government.

By contrast, conscientiousness, which depends on a strong belief in one’s own efficacy, correlates strongly with academic and economic success. I can’t help but wonder whether this might be an omitted variable driving an observed correlation between income and voting behavior, controlling for education, in Western democracies. Higher-income people are more economically liberal in the “historic” sense. I doubt that is due to selfishness so much as a belief that everyone can do better by trying harder. That belief drives both classical liberalism and success in life.

So the question is: Is freedom of the will a noble lie? I argue that it’s not. (more…)

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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Matt Yglesias throws some scorn the way of Freedom in the 50 States 2011:

Reasonable people can disagree as to whether there’s more freedom in Los Angeles or Brooklyn, and there may be good reasons to move from either place to Sioux Falls, but obviously “for the freedom” is not one of those reasons. For the lower taxes? Sure. Because there’s less government regulation? Maybe so. But because there’s more freedom? Clearly not. They say that they “explicitly ground our conception of freedom on an individual rights framework” but all that goes to show is that their understanding of the individual rights framework offers an unsound conception of freedom. These answers are clearly and uncontroversially mistaken.

Because he doesn’t propose any alternative conception of freedom, it’s unclear precisely in what way he thinks that the libertarian conception of freedom is mistaken. But it’s even more perplexing how he comes to the conclusion that the ranking “refutes” the libertarian conception of freedom. California lost 4.4% of its 2000 population over the next 9 years to other states, on net. New York lost 8.9% of its 2000 population over the next 9 years to other states, on net. New Hampshire, by contrast, enjoyed a net gain of 2.8% of its 2000 population over the same period. South Dakota’s net in-migration was 0.8%. The study finds that freer states experience more net in-migration, controlling for climate.

So let’s get this straight: People are fleeing a state with gorgeous year-round climate, world-class universities, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood and flocking to a wintry, windswept state with… the Badlands. People are fleeing a state with Wall Street, the Met, the Yankees, and Broadway for a wintry, rural state with… the Old Man of the Mountain. Wait, he’s gone now too. The omitted variable? Libertarian freedom. And that makes all the difference.

So how do libgressives define freedom? They often seem to conflate freedom and utility. (See for instance the quotes at the end of this story.) But surely a man locked in a cell hooked to an experience machine isn’t really free, is he?

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Lately I’ve been reading One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark by Dartmouth history professor Colin G. Calloway. On some level I had always known that the conquest of the Americas had been brutal in the extreme, but passages like the following tend to numb one:

General Cardenas, however, claimed to know nothing of the peace and adhered to his orders to take no prisoners. He ordered stakes driven into the ground at which to burn the Indians. Seeing the fate in store for them, the Indians fought desperately to escape. Spanish infantry drove them off, and Spanish cavalry rode them down. Castaneda said there were two hundred prisoners; other sources suggest the figure was closer to eighty. At any rate, “none escaped alive except a few who had remained concealed in the pueblo and who fled that night.” (p. 139)

The conquistadors retaliated with brutality: at a pueblo called Puaray Espejo had thirty Indians burned alive when the villagers refused to feed his troops. (p. 144)

Males over age twenty-five… were sentenced to twenty-five years in slavery and were to have their right foot amputated… Two Hopis, visitors to Acoma at the time of the assault, had their right hands amputated and were sent home as living examples of the punishment meted out to those who resisted Spanish power. Such “theater of terror” was familiar to Spaniards and Moors but new and shocking to Pueblos. (p. 149)

In 1655 Fray Salvador de Guerra caught a Hopi named Juan Cuna in “an act of idolatry.” The priest whipped him until he was “bathed in blood,” then drenched him in burning turpentine. (p. 170)

Whatever hold the Franciscans had over the Pueblos, their authority eroded in bickering with Spanish civil authorities… Governors accused friars of abusing their positions, whipping Indians who refused to attend mass and raping Indian girls even as they insisted that Indians follow strict new codes of sexual behavior.  (p. 171)

The French and English weren’t much better (see also “pitchcapping“).

Hopelessly outnumbered…, the Foxes offered to surrender. They dropped more than three hundred children over the palisades in an effort to touch the hearts of the Indians in the besieging force, “calling out to them that since they hungered after their own flesh that all they had to do was eat of it and quench their thirst with the blood of their close relatives, although they were innocent of the offenses that their fathers had committed.” The besieging Indians received the children “with open arms,” and the Sauks provided safe refuge for them, but the French ended further communications by keeping up a continuous fire on the fort… The French were determined to exterminate the Foxes.

A week later…, the Foxes attempted a desperate breakout under cover of darkness during a violent thunderstorm. The cries of their children alerted French sentries, and the French and their Indian allies easily caught up with them the next day… Two hundred Fox warriors and three hundred women and children died in the slaughter. Captured warriors were tortured and burned at the stake. (pp. 323-4)

The English-American colonists used similar tactics to exterminate their enemies (see Pequot War).

We have come a long way. The U.S. government does torture people, but burning people alive is truly of a different order than waterboarding. Nor do most European governments today use genocidal strategies such as exterminating whole tribes and mass rape (but see Bosnian War).

What the history of the American conquest reveals is that ideas of liberalism and toleration are more endogenous to institutions and development than the latter are endogenous to ideas. Western ideas remained barbaric and inhuman, at least relative to those of the Indian “savages,” up until quite recently. (I am not giving any quarter to romantic “noble savage” myths either; Indians were quite capable of bloody warfare both against Europeans and among themselves.) The rapid economic development of western Europe and the neo-Europes had more to do with the fact that Europe was politically divided, both among several polities, and internally between church and state, than with any pre-existing ideas of liberalism. Liberalism came about because of the openings created by regime incoherence and competition, as well as the smoothing effects of trade. Materialist explanations of civilizational change seem to have much more going for them than idealist explanations.

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