Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Response to Stephen Metcalf's Critique of Libertarianism, Part 2

This is a continuation of my response to Stephen Metcalf's article on libertarianism. In Part 1, we marveled at Mr Metcalf's powers of imagination, as at a stroke, he replaced the rich and variegated history of libertarian thought with a caricature entirely of his own invention. In this new version, the movement featured nothing but a bunch of cranks and apologists for the upper class, with the sole exception of a temporary mental lapse by a Harvard professor, which manifested itself in a semi-popular book in defense of libertarianism. Further, we saw that despite having essentially rigged the game so that he only had one man to beat, Mr Metcalf nonetheless managed to whiff badly on his shot at the open goal, as his discussion of
ASU only manages to establish his utter failure to understand the nature of the claims made by its author.

Of course, these tortuous attempts to engage with the output of other writers could be forgiven if Mr Metcalf were to provide us with some truly interesting thoughts of his own on the merits of libertarian ideas. But when he finally turns his efforts in this direction in the final section of the article, we find that the results are, if anything, even less impressive than the ill-conceived Nozick-related drivel with which he has been regaling us throughout the preceding pages. In the first two paragraphs of this final section, Mr Metcalf provides two distinct attacks on libertarianism:

1) An implication that libertarianism rests on semantic sleight of hand: "The ploy is to take libertarianism as Orwell meant it and confuse it with libertarianism as Hayek meant it; to take a faith in the individual as an irreducible unit of moral worth, and turn it into a weapon in favor of predation." Here Mr Metcalf is once again replacing the actuality of the matter with an altered version more congenial to his own purposes - the "ploy" is entirely of his own making. His criticism has doubtless caused great consternation among the libertarian occupants of his imaginary parallel universe, who start from an axiom that some vague notion of individual liberty is inviolable, and only then proceed to work out the definition of what liberty actually is. But, of course, libertarians here on Earth do not do this. They argue, through a variety of methods, for a very specific non-interference principle as an overriding consideration in the construction of an ideal government; since this implies a state of affairs closely related to the accepted meaning of the word "liberty," this word has become associated with their ideas. But it is the precise content of the ideas themselves that must be addressed; having failed to do so, Mr Metcalf's suggestion that Hayek's form of liberty constitutes "predation" is nothing but a flagrant piece of question-begging.

2) A claim that critics of libertarianism are inherently "bullied," "manipulated," and "hectored into silence" by the discourse of their opponents. Unfortunately, his invocation of these terms reveals that Mr Metcalf simply does not understand the logical structure of the libertarian position - that in contrast to other political philosophies, it ascribes non-trivial content to the question of what a government is properly allowed to do, a question that is logically prior to the question of what it should do in a given situation. Mr Metcalf is correct, if not particularly felicitous in his mode of expression, when he says: "The non-trivial question is: What risks...must be removed from the oasis [??] and placed in the framework [??] ... if liberty is to be kept a substantive reality, and not a vacuous formality?" But he has absolutely no justification to suggest, as he does in the following sentence, that libertarians, simply by virtue of their firm negative answer, "seek to prevent a reasoned discussion [of this question] from ever taking place." Libertarians merely direct their "reasoned discussion" toward a subsidiary question that Mr Metcalf apparently has no use for: the prior question of the proper limits (if any) to be placed on government power at the outset. If one accepts the premise that government ought to do virtually anything that is dictated by the democratic process, then the libertarian position would indeed seem unjustly dogmatic. But it does not take extensive familiarity with libertarianism to realize that it is this very premise that they reject. Whether the approach adopted by libertarian writers is primarily consequentialist (as in Hayek's
Road To Serfdom) or deontological (as in Nozick's ASU) they are in every case more than sufficiently clear as to the nature of their contention: that the entity of government ought to have its power carefully circumscribed at the very point when it comes into existence, before the question of its application to any particular issue even arises. That their opponents are compelled to answer this question, instead of skipping directly to the question that they would apparently prefer to answer, is due to the inherent logical relationship of the two questions - not to any unsavory tactics on the part of libertarians.

This latter mode of attack is worthy of further examination, both because, fallacious though it is, it is appallingly common in everyday discourse on the subject, and because elucidating the nature of the mistake helps to reveal Mr Metcalf's fundamental failure to properly understand libertarian ideas. Indeed, it is this error that also underlies the haughtily dismissive tone with which our author, in the article's opening paragraph, addresses the notion that libertarians are "above" the political spectrum. In fact, this description is particularly apt, as with their focus on the prior question, true libertarians have little in common with any mainstream position, all of which give the green light to virtually any government activity, at least in principle. This explains libertarians' hesitation to participate in conventional political discussion; like our author's Amtraker, I have personally found that there is very little to be gained by engaging in a discussion that presumes the truth of the very proposition that I maintain to be false.

But by far the most insidious application of this mistaken thought process is the attribution of "hate," "greed," or some similarly distasteful sentiment to the libertarian position. It is doubtless true that there have been cases where people already possessed of such emotions have gravitated to libertarianism as the political philosophy with the greatest degree of superficial similarity to their chosen mode of interaction. But it should go without saying that this has absolutely no bearing on libertarian ideas in general - the fact that a given conclusion can be reached via a flawed mode of reasoning tells us absolutely nothing about whether the conclusion itself is true or false. To reiterate: libertarians direct their focus at a level that logically precedes the point at which interpersonal sentiment of any type would begin to play a role in generating the content of political belief. For instance, they favor the eradication of active government intervention on behalf of the unfortunate not because they are insensitive to the personal tragedies faced by such people (many libertarians - myself included - attempt through voluntarily-undertaken activity to ameliorate these sad states of affairs) but because according to their interpretation, the intellectual evidence suggests strongly that such government activity never ought to have been on the table to begin with; to remove it now is merely to correct a long-standing error that ultimately possesses nothing less than the potential to bring our free and prosperous civilization to ruin, no matter how laudably humane its consequences appear to be in the short run. Those who suggest that libertarians necessarily possess insufficiently enlightened feeling for their fellow human beings commit an error analogous to that made by Mr Metcalf in his attack on Nozick: they impose onto the discussion their own view of one of the component questions (in this case, by presuming that entire discussion of normative political propositions consists of the simple question of what it is that we "want" government to do), and evaluate the disagreement offered by their opponents through this prism.

In order to demonstrate that libertarianism ultimately provides worthwhile answers to the questions of political philosophy, it is of course necessary to validate the arguments that have been made in support of such an inherently limited conception of government, against the challenges offered by opponents. A complete rehash of this ongoing debate would take us well beyond the scope of this review; fortunately, it suffices for our current purposes to point out that beyond his failed attack on the Wilt Chamberlain example from
ASU, Mr Metcalf's five pages of shrill attacks on libertarianism contain precisely one sentence that engages with the libertarian position at a fundamental level (and you'd better sit down here, lest the demonstration of logical power that you are about to witness blow you away):

"When I think with my own brain and look with my own eyes [??], it's obvious to me that some combination of civil rights, democratic institutions, educational capital, social trust, consumer choice, and economic opportunity make me free."

Well then!

Now, if libertarianism were truly the intellectual horror-show that our author,
ad nauseam, suggests it to be, it should not be in the least bit difficult to confront its distinguishing premise head-on. What are we to make of Mr Metcalf's failure to do so? As far as I can see, we are left with two possibilities: 1) either Mr Metcalf is not aware that this is the question that needs to be answered (which is nothing less than an indication that he does not know what libertarianism is), or 2) he is simply unable to provide a satisfactory answer to the question, and therefore has deliberately attempted in this article to reach his desired conclusion through smoke and mirrors - a never-ending stream of irrelevant, ill-informed, and/or fallacious arguments. It is not intended as a compliment to Mr Metcalf that I am quite uncertain which of these possibilities is more likely; regardless, the inescapable conclusion is that his article, purporting as it does to evaluate as a "scam" an idea to whose defining premise he has offered no rebuttal, is a complete failure.

But we are not done, as Mr Metcalf has obligingly saved his crowning moment of idiocy for the final paragraph:

"Large-scale, speculative risk, undertaken by already grossly overcompensated bankers, is now officially part of the framework, in the form of too-big-to-fail guarantees made, implicitly and explicitly, by the Federal Reserve."

I will go ahead and quote this again, in case your eyes disbelieve what they read the first time around:

"Large-scale, speculative risk, undertaken by already grossly overcompensated bankers, is now officially part of the framework, in the form of too-big-to-fail guarantees made, implicitly and explicitly, by the Federal Reserve."

Surely benefit of the doubt can no longer be maintained by even the most generous of readers. The truth has been laid bare for all to see: our author has simply been presumptuous enough to write an article claiming to offer a comprehensive evaluation of the merits of an idea, without going to the very great trouble of ascertaining what that idea actually is. The distinction between the pure capitalism advocated by libertarians and the crony capitalism that underlies the phenomenon of overcompensated bankers, the concept of Too Big To Fail, and even the very existence of the Federal Reserve, should not be obscure to anyone with even a rudimentary familiarity with the current political landscape - if nothing else, a sizable clue is provided by the fact that the one prominent American politician to maintain an explicit affinity for libertarian ideas, Ron Paul, has written a best-selling book called
End The Fed. That Mr Metcalf initially attempted to discredit libertarianism by associating it with the interests of the wealthy was reprehensible enough; that he is now essentially defining it as such - by including as examples of the negative consequences of libertarianism the very phenomena that libertarians (more than any other political faction) have consistently and vocally opposed - is simply beyond words. "Sad" and "repugnant" are merely a start at forming a proper evaluation, both of this disgraceful piece of trash journalism, and of the fact that it is representative of what passes for meaningful political discourse in today's intellectual climate.


Bob Roddis said...

In his silly podcast on the Nozick article, Metcalf flat out finds it absurd that anyone would be advocating capitalism after it clearly failed in 2008. That's the depth of his "understanding". The concept of "crony capitalism" doesn't exist for him. He should stick to his Bruce Springsteen music and culture reviews.

BTW, Part 1 was good, part 2 was outstanding. This utter "failure of comprehension" by our opponents is THE problem we face. What can we do about it?

Daniel Jepson said...

Bob: Thanks for the comment, and for your fine contributions at Mises and KIW. You're absolutely right that we need to help the uninitiated to get a better handle on what the real questions of political philosophy are, and that's why I think it's so important to wade into the sewage, so to speak, and try to respond directly to gawd-awful efforts like that submitted by Mr Metcalf. After all, hard as it is for you and me to believe, this is still the level on which most people operate - the only reason I even became aware of this article is that a family member linked it (approvingly) on facebook. If we can consistently show people how easy it is for us to refute crap like this (really, this response more or less wrote itself!) perhaps they will at least begin to appreciate that the issue runs a little deeper than their feeble thought processes give it credit for.

andy janes said...

Great response, thanks!