Category Archives: Norms of Liberty

Economic liberty for entrepreneurs is for the sake of consumer happiness. But personal liberty is essential for one’s own flourishing.

Norms of Liberty: Big Picture

R&D propound a "neo-Aristotelian version of perfectionist ethics" that is "objective, inclusive, individualized, agent-relative, self-directed, and social." Of these properties, they latch upon self-direction as both a means to and an essential constitutive part of human flourishing. "Self-direction is a feature of every act of flourishing." (332) There is simply no substitute for it. An other-directed person, however seemingly contented, is not himself happy. Perhaps they'd approve of the following description:

Within the hegemonic societal body and as far as it directs its subordinates' conduct, only the director acts.

The wards act only in choosing subordination; having once chosen subordination they no longer act for themselves, they are taken care of. (HA, 196)

A person who is "taken care of" is not flourishing, because he has no self which is to flourish.

Self-direction for R&D is exercise of practical reason to secure flourishing for oneself or loved ones; not necessarily correct or flawless or successful such exercise.

The chief and only for them aim of the political system is to provide a framework in which self-direction is possible. Perhaps it is better to say not that the political order must "allow" for the possibility of flourishing, but that it must maximize it. Then the choice of liberalism as precisely such a system becomes more defensible. It is obviously impossible to prevent a man completely from planning his own actions. Every system thus permits some amount of self-direction, but only liberalism presumably maximizes it. Every non-liberal regime then diminishes opportunities for self-direction. It curtails or infringes upon the people's use of their practical reason in one way or another.

This formulation allows us to evaluate alternatives to liberalism.

R&D's only example of such is crude paternalism by the state over the consumers, say, by banning or taxing tobacco products. Who dares to be "saving us from ourselves"? I agree that this is verboten on their theory, and this is a welcome result. But there are others.

First, consider socialism. It obviously reduces the scope of self-direction by preventing people from planning and executing their business activities. Thus, in the heyday of socialism, liberals would point out that the issue was not "planning" production; it's who plans: only the dictator or every individual? Socialism would have it that "mankind is to be divided into two classes: the almighty dictator, on the one hand, and the underlings who are to be reduced to the status of mere pawns in his plans and cogs in his machinery, on the other." (HA, 113) Such a society is hardly an embodiment of self-direction.

Take further the government regulation of private business. In order to satisfy the consumers, an entrepreneur must possess mighty prudence and enviable courage. A business is a creative endeavor. Obeying minute, meaningless, and counterproductive rules is the opposite of that; it's the essence of being directed by bureaucrats rather than by oneself. The scope of self-direction is to that extent narrowed.

Self-direction must be so important to flourishing, because it is directed toward benefits to oneself (or again, those one loves who then become as if other selves to him). But taxes recruit one into serving the state. One has no choice but to work 5 months per year for the government and only 7 month for himself. Self-direction still exists but its purpose is defeated.

A free man has the most extensive liberty in planning his own virtue and narrow happiness. He is encouraged by this fact to exercise his practical reason at all times, thereby becoming eventually, well, practically wise. That character traits, too, is a key part of being morally good. Non-liberal systems, on the other hand, as Herbert Spencer put it, by shielding men from the effects of folly, fill the world with fools. Thus, liberalism allows for the possibility of self-direction in every area of life; anti-liberal regimes deny that possibility in some or even many areas, ending with socialist prison nations.

In sum, if the government simply outlaws coercion, then it increases the areas of life where self-direction is possible; if it goes beyond that, then it shrinks those areas.

The contrast between classical liberals and R&D can be put thusly. A person concerned with narrow happiness will say: "Liberalism is a system that cradles a constantly improving economy, and among all the possible types of economies that also improve, liberalism improves the fastest." But B&R argue: "Important though narrow happiness is, our concern is different, it is with virtue." Therefore, in my terms:

  1. for nature and natural rights, my duties are for the sake of others;
  2. for virtue, character, and composition of the self, both my duties and my freedoms are for my own sake;
  3. for narrow happiness, my freedom is for the sake of others.

(Thus, regarding (3), Mises points out that "ownership of the means of production is not a privilege, but a social liability. Capitalists and landowners are compelled to employ their property for the best possible satisfaction of the consumers. If they are slow and inept in the performance of their duties, they are penalized by losses." (HA, 321))

The recognition of (2), that my freedom is essential for my self-direction which is essential for my self-perfection is an important and perhaps neglected argument in the liberal / libertarian political philosophy. The authors are to be commended for developing it so well.

Poor and Self-Direction

R&D consider the objection that "the extremely poor have no concrete possibility for self-direction." (303) Their reply suffices, but I think that when an argument of this sort of brought on, the objector thinks of blacks vegetating in their monstrous "projects."

The problem of blacks and Africans in general is indeed a unique problem of any civilized society. But it is entirely contingent and empirical. (Its is clear though that Americans have failed utterly to arrive at any decent solution to it.)

The fact remains that in a laissez-faire welfare-less capitalist order, the poor (such as a child with no inheritance who starts at the bottom) are the most devious and cunning of all people. They have to be, as they have the most to gain from sagacious exercise of practical reason. They are more ambitious, more driven, more ruthless with competition (in a good sense), more hungry for achievement and improvement of their material conditions than the contented bourgeoisie stuck in their comfortable rut.

Getting from rags to riches is even more common that getting from the middle class mediocrity to riches.

3 Senses of Justice?

They are for R&D:

1. integrity;
2. normative justice;
3. metanormative justice.

I agree that (1) is an important and original sense of justice. But (2) and (3), though called "justice," are in fact theoretical wisdom, or wisdom simply, as distinguished from practical wisdom or prudence in my system. This is because propositions of natural law are derived from speculative contemplation of the human nature.

But is there a reason to separate (2) and (3)? For R&D, (3) is obvious and simple, like "you shall not kill"; (2) is subtle and complex, answering a question like "What are Smith's duties right here and right now to Jones?" (2) then "is a virtue of the self-perfecting life"; "what the virtue of justice calls for someone to do in one situation for one person or group may be very different in another situation or for another person or group." (3), on the other hand, "amounts to respect for basic, negative, individual rights." (298-9)

Is it possible that R&D confused the precepts of justice, like "you shall not steal," with just acts which, in order to be just, require the knowledge of the situation in all its particularity? It is true that I ought not to steal; but I also owe Jones $10.50, such that he'll consider us even if I pay for his lunch. The former wisdom for R&D is metanormative; the latter, normative. Meh. Only if they insist.

NoL: What Is Liberalism?

As of Chapter 10 in Norms of Liberty, I have no idea what it is according to R&D.

Liberalism for them is a system of "metanorms" that "secure the very possibility of human flourishing." There isn't a single example of any such metanorm so far.

"Liberalism" is just a word, devoid of any content. The problem is so acute that I can't even be sure that R&D mean by liberalism / libertarianism anything close to what I mean by it. For all I know, they are wretched statists who tricked me into almost finishing their book.

Mises, for example, proposes that liberalism "presupposes that people prefer life to death, health to sickness, nourishment to starvation, abundance to poverty. It teaches man how to act in accordance with these valuations." (HA, 154) He endeavors moreover to prove that liberalism results in life, health, nourishment, and so forth. I have seen no proof coming from R&D as of yet that liberalism is the only system that best permits human flourishing.

NoL: What Is Liberty?

R&D argue that "liberty cannot be merely the ability to do what one wants." (255) Rightly understood, this is obviously true. But it's also an infelicitous description.

Liberty is not the "ability" but "permission" to do what one wants, in our case, permission from the state.

Of course, in a free society, everything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted (and very few things are forbidden), so the burden of proof that a law was broken and that a citizen is guilty of a crime is upon the state as per the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard. One does not need to ask a bureaucrat for permission to make a sandwich.

Still, one may have the liberty-permission to own a yacht but not have enough money to buy one, thereby being "unable" to sail. One can have the permission to climb a mountain but have no skills or ability to do so. It's important to distinguish between these senses of liberty, lest one might decide to insist that we need "freedom from want" or some such nonsense.

Gray’s Pluralistic Communitarianism

R&D interpret John Gray as dismissing liberalism, because "(1) there have been human beings who have flourished in regimes that are not liberal, and (2) there are forms of human flourishing that are driven out by liberal regimes." (245)

Regarding (1), Gray's exact quote is that "human beings have flourished in regimes that do not shelter a liberal civil society." (247)

Well, I am sure they have, but poorly and not so well as they would have flourished under liberalism. Often the form of flourishing of men under oppressive systems has consisted precisely in fighting those systems to bring about a liberal society. Their heroism is most praiseworthy. Even then, however, it may be possible for them still to find purpose under liberalism by fighting to maintain this society; indeed, liberalism is almost a revolution in permanence, requiring "eternal vigilance" and constant struggle by those interested in lending their talents and dedication to this sort of work.

It's true that civilization depreciates certain inborn traits, like ruthlessness or physical strength. A caveman born with such talents might achieve dominance within his tribe, get the best food available, leave many offspring, and in a manner of speaking "flourish." His services would be less in demand in an advanced capitalist society. Tough luck, I say. Besides, even these savage qualities may be useful to society, say, if he becomes a good athlete.

Regarding (2), Gray claims that "the identity of human beings is understood in terms of their participation in common forms of life... So, it seems that incompatible social structures limit not only our ability to compare and evaluate goods and virtues rationally, but indeed our very understanding of what it is to be human." (248)

I don't like this. Every human being, unless perhaps horribly abused or brainwashed, is capable of choosing his culture and environment. I want to quote Mises here at some length who makes his point with characteristic force. He sets up the argument as follows:

Some ethnologists tell us that it is a mistake to speak of higher and lower civilizations and of an alleged backwardness of alien races. The civilizations of various races are different from the Western civilization of the peoples of Caucasian stock, but they are not inferior. Every race has its peculiar mentality.

It is faulty to apply to the civilization of any of them yardsticks abstracted from the achievements of other races.

Westerners call the civilization of China an arrested civilization and that of the inhabitants of New Guinea primitive barbarism. But the Chinese and the natives of New Guinea despise our civilization no less than we despise theirs.

Are we really different species of humans? Mises rejects this idea:

[These ethnologists] are utterly mistaken in contending that these other races have been guided in their activities by motives other than those which have actuated the white race.

The Asiatics and the Africans no less than the peoples of European descent have been eager to struggle successfully for survival and to use reason as the foremost weapon in these endeavors. They have sought to get rid of the beasts of prey and of disease, to prevent famines and to raise the productivity of labor.

There can be no doubt that in the pursuit of these aims they have been less successful than the whites. The proof is that they are eager to profit from all achievements of the West.

Those ethnologists would be right, if Mongols or Africans, tormented by a painful disease, were to renounce the aid of a European doctor because their mentality or their world view led them to believe that it is better to suffer than to be relieved of pain. Mahatma Gandhi disavowed his whole philosophy when he entered a modern hospital to be treated for appendicitis.

The North American Indians lacked the ingenuity to invent the wheel.

The inhabitants of the Alps were not keen enough to construct skis which would have rendered their hard life much more agreeable.

Such shortcomings were not due to a mentality different from those of the races which had long since used wheels and skis; they were failures, even when judged from the point of view of the Indians and the Alpine mountaineers. (HA, 84-5)

If only liberalism enables us to pursue virtue and happiness with a measure of efficiency, then other cultures would be well-advised to adopt it, as well.

Further, Gray is not a moral relativist or skeptic, or so it seems; this fact permits R&D to ask him, sensibly, "Can anyone reasonably claim to flourish if their societies have neither the practices for seeking friends, achieving integrity, courage, or justice, nor forms of disapproval for letting one's passions run wild or repressing all emotions, or for caring nothing for knowledge, reason, consistency, or truth?"

The alleged problem of incommensurability of goods, including those that "are integrated into social wholes," is solved as before: all values are commensurable through choice.

MacIntyre, Cont.

Our author continues in a passage quoted by R&D: "What the good life is for a fifth-century Athenian general will not be the same as what it was for a medieval nun or a seventeen-century farmer." (231)

But come now, that one is a nun is a contingent fact; it does not guarantee that she ought to have become or continue to be a nun; perhaps she'd eagerly change her vocation to general if she had the chance. Maybe later she'll have a change of mind and leave the convent to pursue commercial endeavors or marry and start a family.

The goodness of a nun may indeed consist in different things than the goodness of a general; but the choice of the vocation itself cannot reasonably be imposed by force. Again, the skills of an acrobat differ from the the skills of a philosopher, and it is true that a certain commitment to one's line of work is requisite; but to have the "community" (i.e., the state) coerce one into a particular trade is a monstrous injustice.

The freedom to choose a specialization or personal identity is distinct from the specialization or personal identity freely chosen or given immutably by nature. Consider that feminists have gone so far as to propose the elimination of the domestic division of labor. Let both the husband and wife devote equal time to earning money and doing each chore around the house. I don't know if such a policy is "fair," but it's certainly extremely stupid and inefficient. Karl Marx babbled about how the communist society "makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." MacIntyre makes the opposite error. One's "social identity" conferred upon him by the circumstances of his birth and childhood is allegedly permanent, inviolable, and even sacred.

R&D counter effectively by pointing out that "the particular cultural and social manifestation of human nature or the human good should never be taken as defining or constituting human nature or the human good itself." (234)

MacIntyre disappoints completely a few pages later: "There may have to be self-imposed limits to labor mobility for the sake of the continuities and the stabilities of families and other institutions." If he means that uprooting oneself and moving can be costly and even heartbreaking, then I fail to see how anyone could deny an observation so obvious. R&D comment:

...if some individuals in a small town should on their own judge economically it is best for them to no longer shop or work at the stores in the center of the town, but should instead travel to stores outside of town to make their purchases of find employment, then such activity might have to be limited or subordinated.

Possibly, such individuals would, and indeed should, judge that such a decision might be contrary to the community life they enjoy, and that the savings or increased salary from traveling to the stores or jobs outside of town are not worth possibly destroying the community life that is so vital to them. (237)

Is it really my duty to subsidize inefficient businesses "in the center of the town" who dare to demand my patronage despite offering inferior goods at high prices, selfishly hoping that their vile propaganda about "community life" will allow them to profit at my expense? I am not prepared to satisfy such outrageous delusions and self-conceit. There is no moral principle that bids me to forsake a better and more exciting job elsewhere and instead keep toiling away for a failing company under a bad boss earning peanuts just in order not to upset some folks with whom I have once or twice engaged in "giving and receiving."

Speaking of which, is MacIntyre talking about sucking dick while having one's own dick sucked? We are to "give and receive" what? There are relationships based on self-interest and relationships based on charity. Business transactions like which food to buy or where to work are instance of the former. Such relations are not marked by "union, mutual indwelling, ecstasy, and zeal," all effects of love according to St. Thomas (ST, II-I, 28); instead, they are simply a network of useful contacts, business partners, customers, allies, and acquaintances. They depend entirely upon immediate expediency and mutual profit right here right now. That today I make an exchange of goods with Smith does not mean that I have acquired a "relationship" with Smith. Each of us is free to forsake the other the moment another person offers us a sweeter deal. And that's a good thing: it keeps every producer on his toes. A mere business or employment contract differs from a life-long covenant like marriage. It seems therefore that MacIntyre has fallen victim to an elementary error of conflating naturally impersonal relationships like between business owner and employee with personal relationships like between family members.

R&D continue that for MacIntyre, "it is the individual reasoning and acting apart for the process of communal deliberation that destroys the relationship of giving and receiving. This cannot be countenanced." (237) But if I am part of the community, am I not supposed to contribute to the "communal deliberation" my own notions? Or must I simply obey the council of elders or the majority or whatever? Perhaps he means that I ought to consider the common good and not just my own good in my actions. But it is a fact that almost the entirety of the common good is simply the total sum of the private goods of the members of a community. The most efficient way to maximize the overall welfare is to take care of one's own, including indeed shop and work wherever one wants.

R&D conclude: "Individuals making choices about which communities to belong to and about their degree of involvement therein is not ipso facto a denial of community. It is only a denial of communities where the role of the individual, and most of the significant choices of the individual, is decided collectively, rather than by the individual himself." (238) Well put. To say that I prefer America to Cuba is not to deny that there are such things as nations or to assert that nations are mere figments of the imagination; it is only to reject the Cuban-style socialism where I am not allowed to migrate at all.

MacIntyre’s Delusions

He argues that

we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son..., someone else's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.

Hence what is good for me has to be good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations.

These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity. (231-2)

How dreadfully tedious. Let's start with the greatest absurdity: MacIntyre is a citizen of some city. Must he stay his entire life in the city he was born in? This is an especially laughable claim for an intellectual like him; scholars always tended to the most mobile and cosmopolitan of people, traveling freely to seek patronage of and income from whichever noble, billionaire, or university had an interest in their ideas.

He is a member of a profession. Was this profession foisted on him by the "community" or did he choose it voluntarily? Is he in favor of forbidding people to change careers or occupations during their lives? Does MacIntyre permit one to seek a better job? What about entrepreneurs who hop from one venture to another? Must they, too, be repressed?

It's true that MacIntyre is someone's son whether he likes it or not; is he also someone's husband by the "community's" decision? Was his marriage arranged? Divorce may indeed be morally dubious; but is it to be proscribed by force of law?

What about perhaps the most significant issue of one's religion? I became Catholic in 2004; was that a crime in his eyes because I abandoned the "community" of people who had no idea what God is? Ought the Church to curtail its missionary efforts?

Well then, what is MacIntyre talking about?

Even if the relations one is born into are one's "starting point," they hardly must be his point once he reaches the age of reason. It is certainly true that severing existing ties, especially familial ties, is a very big deal and is not a decision to be made lightly. But let's not go full retard in proposing to empower the state to interfere into such matters.

In short, the liberty to choose one's community may for a person devalue his existing particular community, but it does not devalue community as such. The right to enter and exit civil associations at will, to associate yourself with new people and to disassociate yourself from others does not make relationships fickle; on the contrary, knowing that people are free to abandon you for being a jerk is a huge incentive to being friendly and just with all.

Society and Types of Associations

R&D consider the nature of the common good as follows:

Descriptions of the nature of the common good are often given in examples involving clubs, enterprises, organizations, and the like... In all sorts of common enterprises, a person's more immediate interest clearly may have to be subordinated to the "good" of the whole. When we are part of a group, it is not so difficult to recognize times when our own preferences may have to be set aside or compromised so that the group might flourish. (203)

Wait, what? If Smith works for company X and is paid wages, then the fact that owes his boss an honest day's work for an honest day's pay has nothing to do with self-subordination but derives from the most basic and obvious justice in buying and selling. Both Smith and X benefit from the exchange; there is no need for any self-sacrifices, unless Smith figures he can cheat and do shoddy work. But the possibility of such ubiquitous theft or fraud is always extant, and it's hard to see what "common good" specifically has to do with it. Smith's good and X's good are both promoted via the contract between the two. I outline the reasons why Smith ought to work hard earlier.

The problem, however, goes deeper. R&D conclude:

the perspective that political society is essentially like other common enterprises, with a good that can override the goods of individuals when the two conflict, is essentially defective. (205)

I agree, but not for the reasons R&D adduce. For a "political society," such as a city or country, is not a common enterprise at all. As Gene Callahan points out, an enterprise or enterprise association is

a group formed around a common purpose to achieve specific ends, and in which one must either work to achieve the stated ends or cease to be a part of the group. ...

Further, in so far as an individual is acting under direction of the enterprise as a whole, whether that direction is arrived at by a vote or by command from the top, the entire enterprise is responsible for the action taken. ...

However, an entire society... is not an enterprise association, but a civil association, united not by a single common purpose but by adherence to a lex, a system of law. It is an error to ascribe to the entire society blame for some particular activity undertaken by a group within that society.

For example, the federal government is an enterprise organization. When the President asks a lower bureaucrat to do something, he issues a command, an executive order. The bureaucrat must obey or quit his job. Routine disobedience would simply destroy the government.

But when the Congress passes a law, it issues to me not a command -- because I do not work for the government in any capacity -- but merely an incentive. It orders rather the judges and the police to punish me for specified behavior if I am found out.

It is a mistake to imagine a government incentive in the form of a threat of punishment for doing something whose persuasiveness the citizens evaluate at leisure to be like a command of a general to a soldier that is obeyed unfailingly and without question.

Flourishing As Individualistic and Agent-Relative

In evaluating John Gray's "dismissal of perfectionism," R&D get everything right.

To use my own terms, intrapersonal virtues are (1) cognitivist, (2) (2nd-order) desire-driven, (3) externalist.

Thus, "courage is a virtue and an important human good" is truth-apt and in fact true. At the same time, there is no inherent necessary connection from realizing this truth to being motivated to cultivate courage. Everyone determines for himself which virtues to focus on and how to combine self-making with pursuit of narrow happiness. Regarding the former, R&D point out that "a person with a career in the military might require greater emphasis on the virtue of courage than would be the case for a civilian." (173) Regarding the latter, perhaps excessive concern with courage would interfere with my personal pleasure of doing philosophy, and I may need to ease up on my martial training. R&D's view "accepts emphasis and unequal weighting as central to its very identity." (179)

Gray claims that good lives considered as bundles of virtues are incommensurable. Au contraire, they are 100% commensurable, not only between themselves but even between ends belonging to narrow happiness. They become so in the process of choice:

Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option.

All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another.

Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference. (HA, 3)

Remember that both virtue and narrow happiness are desire-driven, so Mises' quote applies to these levels. Nature is duty-driven, and Mises took his theory too far. Nevertheless, one becomes who he wants to be and "flourishes" in the manner as per his own choice.

Innate qualities matter, too: e.g., St. Thomas writes that "by reason of a disposition in the body, some are disposed either well or ill to certain virtues... In this way one man has a natural aptitude for science, another for fortitude, another for temperance..." (ST, II-I, 63, 1)

R&D also correctly note that human beings are not omnipotent, and many ways of flourishing are simply closed to them by their inborn traits and external circumstances. A hideously ugly or miserably poor person's options in life are not pretty. Neither are a person's in locked up in prison. To reuse a quote below, "the foremost social means of making man more human is to fight poverty. Wisdom and science and the arts thrive better in a world of affluence than among needy peoples." (HA, 155)

R&D's insistence that flourishing must be "self-directed" is now also clearer. Perhaps they mean the following: suppose Smith is a doctor, but he was forced to learn the skills and to practice medicine under penalty of death for disobedience. Can we call Smith flourishing or happy? I doubt it very much. It is really silly to deny that "the absence of choice diminishes the value of human relations or the displays of excellence in technical skills, physical ability, spirit and enterprise, leadership, scholarship, creativity, or imaginativeness." (181) Presumably, we are talking about humans who acquire and use these "technical skills," etc. for their own fun and profit, not about robots. A calculator can crunch numbers way faster than I can, but I scarcely would praise it for its moral perfection.

I would demur though regarding R&D's elevation of practical wisdom to the chief and master of all virtues. If by practical wisdom we mean prudence, then all that prudence does is churns out means to arbitrarily chosen narrow-happiness ends. On the level of virtue, prudence is replaced with justice in the metaphorical sense -- as integrity; and remember that wisdom for nature, justice for virtue, and prudence for narrow happiness are human powers of judging. They therefore share a property, but their jobs are very different.