Saturday, September 29, 2012

A "Bare Bones" General Case For Liberty

We return. In this post I will outline, in basic form, a "bare bones" General Case for Liberty, I call it. I will leave aside for now its connection to the material from two weeks ago on the Five Stages. This material falls more in line with the projected Liberty and Its Two Enemies.

Probably the majority of the ideas here are hardly original with me, but with any luck they've been assembled (or have assembled themselves) in a way that is fresh and somewhat different. I've isolated ten fundamental principles here, not all of them immediately associated with liberty but with the philosophy behind it--principles in metaphysics and epistemology that, in this writer's judgment, need to be in place before the case for liberty makes sense. Libertarians will probably accede to the first eight right away; some will hesitate over (9) and (10) (those leaning toward theoretical anarchism or anarcho-capitalism will not like (9) at all!). I hope I can eventually convince reasonable people, aware of human nature and human failings, that such principles are necessary for liberty--they are not mere addenda and do not contradict it. On the contrary, without such principles to counter weaknesses inherent in human nature, liberty will eventually self-destruct no less than any other system. Maintaining a free society means maintaining a society which sees liberty as a social and civilizational value, and does not promote this as total, unregulated freedom for the individual to do just anything he sees fit. That is, it distinguishes liberty from license. Free markets mean that prices, etc., respond to supply and demand. It does not mean there are no checks on human behavior. This is an idea implicit in (7) and (8).

In any event, here are the principles. Feel free to post a comment at the end, whether by agreement, disagreement with one or more, or to elaborate if you want.

A "Bare Bones" General Case for Liberty (in Ten Principles).

(1) The Determinacy Principle. We inhabit a determinate universe—or, at least, we inhabit a world where our surroundings behave in a fashion that appears determinate. We think in terms of causes and effects, in which the world around us is predictable. Thus we can establish goals (or subsidiary objectives), take action to achieve them, and sometimes succeed. If our surroundings behaved randomly, or if the general scientifically-discoverable laws changed unpredictably, or even if we believed they might do so, human action would be impossible.

(2) The Indifference Principle. The universe, because of its law-governed nature, is indifferent to human needs, wants, or other interests. However we explain this (Christians can turn to Genesis 3; naturalists will speak of the absence of evidence for divine providence), we reach the same result: if a person simply sits and takes no actions whatsoever, he/she will eventually die of thirst, starvation, or exposure. Think of Robinson Crusoe, stranded on his desert island. He must get up off his duff and do something. Interaction with one’s surroundings (voluntary or otherwise) appears to be a necessary condition for the survival of any organism.

(3) The Intelligibility Principle. This idea is implicit in (1) and (2). That the workings of the universe are intelligible to the human mind is a presupposition of all science. The working out of events in our surroundings is intelligible to us; this is a presupposition of life itself: again otherwise, whatever successes the sciences have achieved, and those of technology, would be utterly mysterious. Of course, theories of the specific ways in which various domains of reality are intelligible have changed considerably over time, but the general thesis that the universe is intelligible to the human mind, at least in part*, has remained a constant.

(4) The Action Principle. Successful action in the world is both possible (because of (1) and (3)) and necessary (because of (2)). I am using the term action essentially as Mises used it: the employment of specific means to achieve specific prior-imagined ends or goals, understood as embedded in the deeper metaphysics and epistemology of a determinate if indifferent universe (our proximate environment) we can both understand and bring under our conscious control, at least somewhat. Mises, of course, saw action as axiomatic: the denial of action would itself be an action; and so the denial of the reality of human action by a person is self-invalidating.

(5) The Individuality Principle. Complex systems respond to specific problems in their proximate environment individually because of how they are structured, and this includes human beings. Brains, nervous system, senses, are possessions of the individual, not a collective. Perception, cogitation, and therefore action are therefore fundamentally individual events. There are no such things as “collective thought” or “collective action,” except as metaphors. Now of course, human beings—like other systems—can collaborate and cooperate in their endeavors. They can share information, divide their resources and labor, and frequently come up with better and more efficient solutions to problems through complex sequences and combinations of actions. What results are various human institutions and organizations.

(6) The Production / Property Principles. Successful collaborative actions as understood within the framework of (5) will transform something incapable of being used by human beings into something capable of being so used (example: the conversion of crude oil into gasoline; or of stone, lumber, and glass into a skyscraper). This process was identified clearly by John Locke, in his Second Treatise Of Government, roughly 80 years before Adam Smith placed it in the context of economics. Locke spoke of property—that which you produce, you own; no one else can rightly step onto it without invitation if it is land or make use of it without permission if it is some good. Acknowledging this right to property, this right to ownership, as a moral claim on space not to be trespassed against by others, is a necessary condition for stable life in a civilization whose members expect to prosper.

(7) The Trade Principle. Persons or collaborations of persons may produce surpluses of specific goods which can then be traded for surpluses produced by other persons or collaborations of persons. These trades—or exchanges—will occur when both parties perceive benefits from them, and not otherwise. (They may be wrong in their perception, but never mind this now.) As these states of affairs multiply, they create an economy—economic space, one might call it—in which trade can take place freely and openly: unhampered (as Mises would say). As some will prove to be leaders and others will be better as foot soldiers, divisions of labor will develop and multiple as the economy grows and begins to flourish. Money becomes a medium of exchange against which the perceived value of various goods and necessities (food, clothing, etc.) is measured, replacing the inefficiency of, e.g., barter.

(8) The Duty Principle. The state of affairs described in (7) works under the assumption that its participants recognize a fundamental negative duty or negative obligation which follows directly from the moral claim identified in (6): do not interfere either with the property of others or their decision to enter into a trade. In other words: unless there are very good reasons for doing otherwise, allow all persons to make their own choices, rather than forcing them down paths not of their own choosing to obtain a specific outcome dictated by someone else. (What these "very good reasons" might be is an issue we now take up.)

(9) The Encoding-of-the-Rules Principle. Consider this question: will all of civilization's members play by the rules, as it were? If the answer is Yes, then we could have a possible world where there is no need to encode the rules, or arrange for mechanisms of enforcement or punishment for those who break the rules, and in that world there would be no need for specific brands or bodies of governance. No one, of course, really believes we live in this world, although some envision building it. In the real world, some do look for opportunities to circumvent the rules, or will use force when it is more convenient than voluntary trade. Some will steal from others if they believe they can get away with it. They will also attempt to defraud others. Will some producers even join other producers in an effort to seek unearned advantages? If the answers to this is Yes, then if governing bodies are not created by specific measures by representatives of the people they will be created by those who simply want to create and sustain a legal empowerment over the people that would effectively end their freedom to act according to their own choices in any meaningful way. Thus, it is best if some are entrusted to encode a set of rules and create institutions of enforcement. There is a need for government as rule-encoder and enforcer, provided it can be bound by specific limits on its authority (to encode the rules and serve as the agency of punishing rule-breakers according to a specific set of rules or civil laws applying the same to all). This is not to minimize the difficulties in doing so that have been well known for over 2,000 years when Plato first wrestled with them (and came to the unfortunate conclusion that only central planning could solve the problems of civilization). Nor is it to suggest that there is an ideal resolution to these difficulties. Addressing them is, given human nature, an ongoing problem rather than a permanently solvable one.

(10) The Worldview Principle. Paragraphs (1) through (9) offer an outline of the basic tenets of classical liberal political philosophy with sideways glances into Austrian-school economics, systems theory and (perhaps) a deontological ethic (though not exactly in Kant’s sense). Yet what we have is clearly incomplete. It makes one of its fundamental priorities protection of the individual person’s right to act according to his/her own choices—conjoined with the duty to allow this same right to all others. It makes another fundamental priority respect for the right of each person to the fruits of his/her successful actions. Yet again, how much trust can we place in persons to honor these values voluntarily? Can one trust the large organizations not to collaborate in ways that would thwart the choices of others by controlling markets? Are we to believe that governing institutions can be compelled to answer to the desires of the people? Can one trust the perceptions of the common people that their choices reflect awareness of the difference between real needs and mere wants. Will their choices bring about actual benefits, as opposed to long-term problems that if continued long enough will spread and render their society dysfunctional (examples: familiar vices ranging from smoking cigarettes and eating unhealthy food to trades involving drug use/abuse, prostitution, gambling, and so on—activities which even the libertarian ought to concede damage both the individuals engaging in them and the surrounding society to the extent they are engaged in). How are large numbers of people to be educated in such a way, having been taught critical and long-term thinking, that they voluntarily refrain from making such choices? One of the primary jobs of philosophy should be to identify, articulate, and evaluate the worldview presupposed by the various activities and institutions which make up the warp and woof of civilization—challenging them when necessary, and constructing new ones when possible. Liberty clearly requires moral principles that have teeth: while if they are not chosen they are not truly moral principles, as principles they can be taught and they can be enforced; and there are long-term consequences associated with their violation. Liberty thus requires a worldview embodying a moral view of the universe and ethical standards for human conduct. These are not products either of culture itself or the marketplace. Moral principles do not describe our actions; they prescribe and proscribe. They supply a set of “oughts” and “ought-nots.” From where does morality come. Not from physical reality, which as we said (2) is indifferent and within which only descriptions can be given; and in which actions are described only in terms of their efficiency or lack of. Nor can they come from the marketplace, which left to its own devices will supply what people want and need without moral comment. If enough people want harmful drugs, that is, or want to engage in gambling, that is what the marketplace will supply, and civilization will pay the long-term consequences. You can have, in David Kupelian's phraseology, a "marketing of evil" that obeys the same economic laws as any good. A healthy civilization needs a transcendent moral order to make sense of this distinction. As Hayek recognized (chs. 4 and 6 of The Constitution of Liberty) there may be circumstances in which, e.g., the Trade Principle, is defeasible. The most obvious is if specific trades, however voluntary, are bringing about (or threatening to bring about) massive social dysfunction.

Going beyond (10): some of us have concluded quietly that only a Christian worldview can rise to the occasion of supplying an adequate transcendent moral order and compass to guide individual action beyond an efficiency that can describe on equal terms building skyscrapers or creating weapons of mass destruction. But a full accounting of our conclusion will have to wait for a future weekend.


  1. Dr. Yates... you know how I feel about "Going beyond (10)". So, I must ask, have you looked into Humanism, and if not, why? Many of the principles are much the same as those "good" principles of religion, but without the belief factor. There are many individuals that think being good without a god is not only possible, but essential, because of the conflict that various religions will inevitably experience between one another, and even between various factions of the same religion... or is it that everyone must convert to a specific denomination of Christianity in order for this Utopia to exist? If that's the case then wouldn't the same end be reached if everyone converted to Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, etc... so long as everyone's religion happened to be the same? If that's the case then why not forgo religion entirely and go with Humanism as a moral philosophy, or do you truly believe that individuals are so inherently evil that they cannot hold themselves and others adequately accountable for their actions, even if the Humanist principles were taught, much like religion, from one's birth? See, I can understand religion as a matter of faith. Ok, so you, individually happen to believe in this one god to the exclusion of all others... that I can kind of, almost, understand. But the idea that Christianity, to the exclusion of all other belief systems, would be the one that would save the world's morality... well, that seems a bit off. Especially since there are much more peaceful world views out there that are based on respect for other humans, animals, plants... the world as a whole.

  2. Some random remarks from me:
    1, 2 and 3: I think your theses here are unnecessarily strong or not stated precisely enough. Perhaps you have a specific class of XIX century examples in mind when formulating the general principles, but my experience as a scientist/engineer does not fit your model, so something is wrong. An example: "or if the general scientifically-discoverable laws changed unpredictably [...] human action would be impossible". If the laws changed, e.g., rarely, or to a small extent, on average, human action would be possible. Moreover, as long as we do not know for sure that the laws change a lot and often, action (learning the new laws and then using them) still makes sense. More to the point, the laws governing complex systems, say financial, social or software systems, change unpredictably as the systems evolve. A system that I try to change is often not indifferent to my actions. Such systems are, as a rule, very opaque and partially unintelligible and moreover, they often exhibit the observer effect and change irrevocably with time and as a result of experimenting with them, before they can be fully understood and described.

    4: and because the universes within which many of us work are not quite determinate, indifferent and intelligible, the action as you defined it, does not suffice for the modern entrepreneurship. Important extra components are random, irrational experiments (points 1), playing, waiting for the system to change spontaneously, occupying oneself with unrelated, inspiring things, until something tickles the brain the right way (point 2), again irrational experiments, using intuition, actions intended to fail, but with the hopes of learning about the system or changing it to a more favourable random state (point 3). I suppose the XIX century and the traditional Protestant work ethics screams at this point: "hippie, commie, loony, manipulative slacker! no work, no eating!", but as long as cheap oil still runs, we are still in the XXI century, very large segments of economy run differently that in XIX century, but I'd hope liberty still makes sense. BTW, cooperation is also a bit different in such context, but let's not nitpick.

    In point 6, this excludes programmers, etc., that create ex nihilo: "transform something incapable of being used by human beings into something capable of being so used", unless your "something incapable of being used by human beings" includes void.

    In point 7, again, what is the surplus of software? What about free software, which is becoming a very large part of the economy (Android, for example)? Generally what about hobby, non-profit, non-sucess-oriented projects that start whole industries? What about gamification: creation of goods via playing games (that one is still in its infancy)?

    No comments about the other points. I haven't thought through what my objections entail. Probably only that if we luck out and discover cheap free energy and mostly virtualize the world economy (robots and computers take care of most "action" and "trade"), your argument (or prescription) no longer applies and right now it does not apply to a part of the US export sector (the creative part of Hollywood and engineering). Anyway, thanks for something worth nitpicking and I'm eagerly waiting for more.

    1. Wow, what an interesting comment! I suppose this is the sort of thing I need to see at this point. I think the problem is that the initial theses aren't stated with sufficient precision. These were preliminaries. As we go along, I will endeavor to improve the clarity and precision of what is being said. In the meantime, thanks for posting.