Charlotte Gore has kindly offered to destroy socialism for us, explaining that it is wrong for the state to force us to do things that it think are good for us. Who could disagree with that? The question becomes a little muddier when it is not force but taxation, and not what is good for us, but what is good for other people.
When libertarians equate taxation with force, it seems to be because they have a good presumption against the initiation of force, and want to use it again. And they are not their brothers' keepers.
The comments have thrown up something that I tend to take for granted when evaluating or justifying policies.
I asked Charlotte this: Do you object to socialism because it is justified in terms of the greater good? Or do you object to the idea of the greater good, because it is used to justify socialism?
and she replied
I think the point is that you can use 'The Greater Good' as a moral justification to commit almost any act. Socialism - both terrible ends and terrible means - is justified in the same way.So yes, I am against both the act and the moral justification that 'permits' the act. I am not against things just because they're justified by 'the Greater Good' - I just see it as a warning flag.Now that you're asking, I think debating with people about whether or not Socialism would serve the Greater Good would, in effect, be to accept the premise of their argument - that the Greater Good can be a legitimate moral justification.
There's something in this I agree with. It is probably true that appeals to the greater good usually merit a reaction of horror.
And yet, I think a liberal society is a good one, in a way that a socialist or conservative society is not. Am I committing the same crime? So I responded along these lines:
I would agree that the "greater good" is a dangerously nebulous concept. So let's forget about the "greater". You are arguing, aren't you, that a smaller state is better than a bigger state? Some people will argue the opposite.
I say "X is good" and you disagree, do you say
"No, X is bad"
"No, 'X is good' is not a legitimate moral justification."
Adding that I find it hard enough to work out sometimes what is good and what is bad, never mind what makes a "legitimate" moral justification.
The trouble for arch libertarians, as I see it is that they are saying that it is wrong to use certain kinds of argument as moral justifications for political action. This is itself a moral claim very much of the kind that it itself condemns.
It seems to me that libertarianism, like Marxism, is full of the kind of implicit moral claims that are also condemned. Respect property. Don't initiate force. Anything the government does is evil. If these are not moral claims, then what are they?
So what alternative do I offer?
It seems to me there are two phases to the evaluation of a policy. 1, a prediction of the policy's effects, and 2, evaluation of those effects according to our values, that is whether it has good consequences.
This does seem inescapably to rely on a notion of the good. Frankly, no other standard makes any sense to me, than that a policy should have good consequences. What else might I possibly want to care about? Good intentions? Purleeeze. The road to hell, etc.
So it is a struggle to understand Charlotte's perspective that certain kinds of argument are dangerous and therfore cannot be used. Of course it is true they are dangerous. Prediction is never perfect (and so policy should be risk-averse) and some people have pretty warped values, and so some very bad policies could seem good after a process of prediction and evaluation.
But what is the alternative? To say that we don't care about the consequences? Yet even libertarians don't fail to claim that the libertarian society will be freer, happier, richer, and better in all sorts of ways. Do they say this just because they think it matters to us, when it really doesn't matter to them?
No. There are bad policies because there are bad predictions and bad evaluations, not because we shouldn't be trying to do either. And it is interesting how a confusion of prediction and evaluation is behind so many bad policies. Socialists are bad at prediction because of Marx. They liked his evaluation - although he couched it, like libertarians do, in apparently amoral rational terms - and so didn't subject his philosophy to the rigour that has blown it away. Greens are trying to reinvent economics - because they don't like the predictions it gives about their well-intentioned policies - by trying to add "moral" values to it, rendering it a hopeless tool of prediction.
We hone our tools for prediction with scientific skepticism, free debate and a respect for evidence over tradition. This is liberal of course, but what really defines the liberal are the values. That you know what is best for you, better than I do, and therefore I should respect your freedom. That I have no way of knowing whether my hopes and dreams are better or more important than yours are, and in this sense we are equal. That despite and because of our differences we have to get along. Liberty, equality and community. Not really fundamental values, but abstractions reflecting as best as possible the diverse inarticulable fundamental values in each of our heads.
Ok, a final thought and a slight digression if you have not had enough already. I very much liked oranjepan's comment:
If we stop thinking of liberalism as an ideology and start thinking of it as a tendency which incorporates differing ideologies in different contexts then all the problems and inconsistencies dissolve away into compatibility.All ideologies are great if you are rich and can control the circumstances in which you apply them, but if you're not rich it's a different matter. If you're not rich ideology becomes a way to explain the world which provides excuses for your lack of material success and prevents you from taking the opportunities to rise out of your situation.Its much better not to dispute the truth or applicability of any ideology but to dispute the universality of its truths and define the limits of its application.
It provoked the retort
I think what you've said there sums up modern politics - especially our party. A pragmatic, managerial approach to politics
The response is that skepticism with regard to ideologies is pragmatic and therefore unprincipled. (Unprincipled? Is that like lacking an appreciation for the greater good? What a thing to suggest!)
Pragmatism is considering what works - it is calculating the actual effects of a policy. So it is consistent with - indeed essential to - a sound values-based judgement of those effects and therefore of the policy.
But I read in oranjepan's comment skepticism more than pragmatism. Don't get carried away with your ideologies. That is the sort of thing that leads to atrocities.