Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian

UPDATED 08/17/11, 08/26/11

Extreme libertarians — those who believe that a free society can be built on arm’s length transactions — are a deluded sort.

For the most part, human beings do not interact on the basis of contractual arrangements. The quality of human interactions — how one person treats another — depends largely on the degree to which individuals respect and trust each other. Respect and trust arise from a social bond — based on common interests and shared norms — not from contractual arrangements.

Robin Hanson is among the group of extreme libertarians who seems not to understand what I have just said. Hanson — whose blog I quit reading some time ago because of its pervasive wrong-headedness — came to my attention today, and not in a good way. His upside-down view of humanity leads him to defend blackmail (e.g., here, here, and here).

I am sorry that I was reminded of Hanson and his loopy worldview. (Shame on John Goodman.) I will now try to put Hanson out of my mind.

P.S. According to Hanson, his “core politics is ‘I don’t know’.” But, he says, “I like to explore the potential for decentralizing functions of government, I am intrigued by demarchy, and I have invented a new form of government called ‘futarchy‘.” [Working link provided for “demarchy”: ED.] If it walks like a duck, and so on.

In any event, the substantive point of my post — the shortsightedness of contractarian and economistic thinking — is aimed not just at Robin Hanson but at all (mostly self-styled libertarians) who indulge in such thinking. I have been guilty of it, too, as a thorough reading of this blog and its predecessor would reveal. But deeper reflection on the ways of the world has brought me around to what I call Burkean libertarianism (e.g., see this and this).

UPDATE 08/17/11

For readers who may not look at comments, here are Robin Hanson’s comments and my replies:

Hanson:

Yes most relations aren’t explicit contracts, yes they are built on ancient capacities for social bonds, yes many bonds are close. Not sure what you think I wrote that disagrees with that.

Me:

Stand back from the trees and look at the forest. Your defense of blackmail “disagrees with that” because blackmail is a socially corrosive practice. I would expect that in a real society (unlike the thing called the United States) practitioners of blackmail would be shamed and shunned, even if they weren’t subject to criminal prosecution.

Hanson:

Saying that sometimes strong bonds are important does not imply there should never be things that might break strong bonds. We allow many features of society that can threaten strong bonds. I’d consider allowing people to commit to not using the option of blackmail with particular folks they want to signal a strong bond to.

Me:

I admire your willingness to engage in an exchange with me, despite my acerbic tone. It bears out your self-assessment (http://hanson.gmu.edu/home.html); e.g., “I have a passion, a sacred quest, to understand everything….” and “I beat hard on new ideas, seek out critics, and then pledge my allegiance only to those still left standing.” Whether I will be left standing remains to be seen. Enough of that, and on to the point of your comment…

I agree that “there should never be things that might break strong bonds.” I can think of many good examples of such things; one example is chronic infidelity in a marriage. Certainly, there are some spouses who tolerate it, even when they know of it. But I doubt that a very high percentage of chronic “cheaters” get a pass; that is, chronic infidelity is very likely to be among the things that can break strong bonds — not only a bond that the cheated-on spouse might have felt toward the cheater, but also between the couple’s child/children and the cheater.

However, I’m not sure what you mean by saying “We allow many features of society that can threaten strong bonds.” I gather that you’re thinking of behaviors that are generally condoned, even though they might threaten strong bonds. I can’t come up with any examples. What do you have in mind?

You end with this: “I’d consider allowing people to commit to not using the option of blackmail with particular folks they want to signal a strong bond to.” But that seems to leave open the option of blackmailing others, a possibility that would lead to some degree of distrust among persons who are not strongly bonded. Now, I agree that the possibility of blackmail would not be a leading cause of societal distrust, inasmuch as the intersection of prospective blackmailers and blackmailees probably yields a small fraction of any population. But if blackmailers do not face social or official repercussions, that leaves individuals open to the possibility that a neighbor, co-worker, or acquaintance might resort to blackmail, even for a small payoff. This would diminish the degree of trust upon which civil society depends for mutually beneficial, cooperative endeavors.

I worry about condoning blackmail because, for the reasons just given, the threat of it can put social “distance” between people. As I say in “Facets of Liberty” (https://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/facets-of-liberty/), “there is a human tendency to treat friends differently than acquaintances, acquaintances differently than strangers, and so on. The closer one is to a person, the more likely one is to accord that person trust, cooperation, and kindness. Why? Because there usually is a difference between the consequences of behavior that is directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that is directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”) becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.” Examples abound: the nasty tone of many blogs and their comment threads (I am relatively polite); e-mail exchanges, even among co-workers, where there is a “distance” between them; the general character of driving practices on streets and highways (villagers seem to be an exception that proves the rule), fans’ behavior at certain kinds of sporting events; and so on.

Me, again:

A quick note after several days on the road, and nothing more from Robin Hanson. I still can’t think of behaviors that are generally condoned, even though they might threaten strong bonds. Moreover, I take exception to Robin’s use of “we.” There is no “we” in the United States, because it is not a society. Not even close. See https://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/america-love-it-or-leave-it/.

UPDATE 08/26/11

I have heard enough from callow youth. Comments are closed.