Thursday, October 16, 2008

How not to destroy socialism

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.


Charlotte Gore said...

Brilliant, Joe, thanks for this.

I think as I hinted, my brain is still very much a work in progress and this thread was something of an eye opener for me.

I am determined now not to talk about things as being 'good' or 'bad', but rather correct and incorrect decisions based on what reason dictates is 'correct', and that ultimately the only 'moral' basis for me personally would be whether or not it allows people to pursue their self interest - because obviously as an arch libertarian I'm into that sort of thing, for better or worse.

I certainly do not wish to fall into the same trap of using moral arguments to condemn something justified by alternative moral arguments when I should be concentrating on correct and incorrect.

I think.

Did I mention, 'work in progress'? :)

Joe Otten said...

Yeah, fair enough.

I agree that what people want for themselves is a fairly unassailable standard for measuring their share of the good, and that this justifies the freedom to pursue self-interest. But I don't see that that freedom is the only thing it justifies.

Bob's notion of self-interest might lead him to seek to conquer the world. Without some notion of equal rights, for example, or non-initiation of force, we would have to consider his quest to be good!

If something is a fundamental value, it means we can't justify it by reference to something else (or that something else would be a fundamental value).

Clearly an infinite regress of values justifying other values is unsatisfactory. But also taking a value and saying "I'm not going to justify this, but I will base everything else on it" also seems unsatisfactory.

My "work in progress" - and I don't claim to have done this robustly - is to say that actually my personal (as opposed to political) hopes, desires and whatnot need no justification anyway. I need not explain to anyone why I want cornflakes not weetabix today, or why I want to go to the park instead of the shops. It makes little sense to ask for justifications of these things.

So perhaps these values are fundamental, and in their turn justify liberty, equal rights and so on.

Perhaps Kant hinted at this when he said that each man is an end in himself.

So my question to you is this: why pick out the pursuit of self-interest? Is it good for a reason? And does that reason point to something more fundamentally good?

Darrell G said...

Socialists are bad at prediction not because of Marx but rather because they read prediction into Marx I would say and it rather suits socialism to be constantly predicting a final collapse of capitalism and that is the way that they have seen socialism coming about when of course the truth was the other way around; that the stronger capitalism became the better the prospects for socialism become. I'll even go further and say it derived in some way from Bolshevist revisions or adaptations of Marxism which again were politically motivated products of their time.

To me there is still some fundemental truths that Marxism does tell us about capitalism namely that it is inherently prone to crisis; something that is emiently proveable even from the capitalist lexicon which does talk about the 'boom and bust' cycle and that it is a class divided society. Two things that I am still waiting to hear comprehensively 'blown-apart'.

However, since again it was a product of its time there are plenty of things that do not hold true from it. Incidentally, the role and function of property is something that needs majorly rethinking in Marxism and this is something where I would drift into what would be called 'revisionist' tendencies.

Fundementally, although I have experience of Bolshevist Marxism it was in the last anylysis the social democrats that were proved half-right because although capitalism does collapse it does also recover; moves forward and then stops again. It's implausible to think that an ideology conceived in the 1900's can provide all the answers for anything in 2008.

I half accept critiques of socialism to the point where I feel there has been a failure to think....however, I would equally not defend a chucking out of the baby with the bathwater.....

Charlotte Gore said...

Hmm, well I should also have added that in addition to pursuing self interest - which as you pointed out requires *no* justification, there is also the compulsion not to use force against others. That's the catch.

So, no justification required for pursuit of self interest - you own your own life and you only get one shot at it, so that's why I picked that as the single 'ethical' standard by which to judge policy, and I guess why other people pick it too.

At the same time, there can be no possible justification for forcing other people to do anything other than to prevent them using force against others - if pursuing your self interest is the correct thing to do, then preventing someone pursuing their self interest when they are not using force against others is the incorrect thing to do.

It is, I think, a very compact and rational form of morality but one which, so far, seems to work extremely well for me, but one that requires a lot of discipline. :S

Obviously this is highly theoretical. In the real world you cannot expect 100% of people to be reasonable and rational actors (I'd be amazed if the figure approached even 10% if at all) - which means you cannot expect them to respond reasonably and rationally to a system that depends on each person pursuing their own self interest.

Hence to prevent riots, revolutions and create stability it is balance and compromise that prevails, and so this is why it's the dominant system of Government round the world, the 'mixed' economy.

The only down side, as I see it, is in the context of finite natural resources and the fact that we can change our environment faster than species can adapt... which is the cause of extinction. Here there is a collective self-interest... bit of a nightmare for libertarians.

Charlotte Gore said...

Darrell I see you're opening up a new front. ;) I can't keep track!

I recommend you go read even a basic A-Level economics text book. Nothing fancy, you don't even need to read all of it.

It explains... well... everything.

Darrell G said...

I just like keeping you on your toes Charlotte :)

Go on, humour me...tell me in succint terms why;

a) capitalism isnt prone to cyclical crises (come on, this one will be really funny given the current climate) and

b) why there are no social classes in capitalist society (something that if you skip economics and go to sociology you will be told very much the opposite of)...although I think you will probably actually say well 'nobody is actually really poor in Britain (which will be news to alot of people), they are all feckless bums etc etc or else rather more bizzarely because we have a welfare state...

Charlotte Gore said...

No, you explain to me why Capitalism has anything whatsoever to do with class. Marx proposed the idea of a 'Capitalist' class and a 'worker' class, and that by destroying the capitalists he could create a 'classless' society. Absolute madness.

But a world in which anyone can be both worker and capitalist, class is irrelevant. Class is not a function of capitalism, neither is unemployment (except Capitalism does not exist for the sake of creating jobs)

Marx framed his analysis of Capitalism in terms of an exploited class of labour, but he has been proven wrong by history, because the quality of life for wage earners delivered under capitalism here in the western world is so much better in every possible arena than in societies that ran according to his ideas. Those societies collapsed, while the Capitalist societies have continued to take two steps forward then one step back every now and again. Yes it's cyclical but over the long term we're still growing and improving.

Capitalism is a dynamic and organic system, adaptable and fluid while Socialism is a rigid and mechanical system, adapting slowly - if at all - and with the inevitable consequence of death, decay and absolute poverty. Whatever the intentions, the means simply do not work in practice.

This is what history shows. I don't think you appreciate how good things actually are. :S I do not seek utopia, I do not believe you can completely eradicate all pain and suffering from the world, nor do I think we would remain human if we could. I am prepared to settle for people being free - something people seem not to value until they lose it.

We have mixed economies because Socialist economies don't last and because 'the workers' would have a revolution if they faced starvation and death as a result of unemployment. Some people are terrified by the prospect of true freedom and independence, especially young adults that are just starting out on their own and typically very vulnerable and sometimes dependent on a safety net of some kind, whether it's parents or the state.

The bottom line is if you want your social goals paid for you need to keep the economy alive - let capitalism thrive and try not to take the piss with the tax bill. If you starve the cow, it produces no milk :)

Tristan said...

My personal objection to the 'greater good' is the way it is used to justify attack upon individuals and communities by the powerful.
The state and its adjuncts use talk of the greater good to justify aggression and to enforce negative outcomes upon groups of people.

I know libertarians who will argue in terms of the greater good, and they actually tend to be the most radical. The difference is that libertarians (at least consistent ones) seek equality of authority so no group or person can be subjugated to the will of another, that is in the interests of the greater good.

I think you've hit upon a difference between consequentialist and rights based libertarianism here.
Consequentialists (like Milton Friedman and his son David (and grandson Patri)) argue that libertarianism offers the best situation for humans.

Rights theorists (like Rothbard) argue from moral conceptions of rights.

In practice I think most libertarians are a mixture of both.
Personally I think it is necessary to have a strong moral foundation and to demonstrate the advantages of the proposed system, which I think makes me a thick libertarian.

I really need to find the time to go through all this and try to arrange my thoughts in a presentable manner for more discussion.

Tristan said...

Darrell G:

There are a myriad of problems with Marxism and its descendents. The historicism is one of the chief ones, his class analysis is also deeply flawed - it just doesn't work as he laid it out.

His reliance upon the labour theory of value is also a troublesome point- although it is probably possible to bring in subjective value to some of Marxism (is this what the Austro-Marxists did? They appear to have followed Menger and Marx).

I believe Marx did make some useful insights and class theory is not to be abandoned just because Marx got it wrong.

Charlotte and Darrell:
Also remember that whilst Marxism and its descendents are by far the dominant forms of socialism today, they are not the only ones and that there is much of merit in the forms of socialism crowded out by Marx (especially the libertarian socialisms of the 19th Century)

Darrell G said...


I have no problem with saying Marxism is not THE WORD as such and things do need to be looked at and constantly assessed. I think if anything it is lopsided which is exactly what my polemic ends up being sometimes because I am defending it against people like Charlotte who do throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject the notion that classes exist at all which is a patent absurdity.

Why I should have to write lengthy proofs is beyond me when i could save the time and bother and take Charlotte on a tour of some of the areas of the very city I live in. Nobody denies that things are better for wage earners than they were in say 1900 and nobody denies that capitalism can drive the productive forces forward in fact Marx did see capitalism as *both* a progressive and destructive regressive force.

And on the other forms of socialism you are of course right. However, the bits I dont like about them are that they tend to be rather statist if you think about something like Fabianism. This is the contradiction is see in liberterian socialism; I like the Marxist emphasis on self-activity and democratic control.

Joe Otten said...

I'll leave Marxism for another day - that was a throwaway remark.

Tristan, cool. Of course I'm with Mill in rejecting "natural" rights and caring about consequences.

Charlotte, my intention was not to give you a free pass on the pursuit of self-interest or the non-initiation of force. I agree they are good (or more broadly, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but they are not as obvious to everyone. So why are they good? Because of self-ownership? OK, why is self-ownership good?

What you seem to be doing - along with many other people of all political and moral persuasions - is looking for some obviously good starting points and generalising them so that they are powerful enough to start giving answers to political or moral dilemmas.

So self-ownership generalises to property which generalises to opposition to all taxes and governments.

But this is exactly what oranjepan warned against. You are taking an idea that works where we can see it working and applying it more broadly where it doesn't work.

I reject this approach. I don't think we learn any interesting things deductively from obvious axioms. Rather, we have fairly random ideas and try them out - test them experimentally, or see if we can logically deduce absurd or contradictory, or morally offensive consequences (depending on what kind of idea it is). This is scientific method. It is rational.

Taking any "principle", claiming that it needs no justification, and saying that I am going to believe in it, and hang the consequences: that is irrational.

oranjepan said...

Why thanks Joe, I'm almost blushing a deep shade of... orange?

It is absolutely true that I have a deep scepticism of labels.

We could ask whether Ronald Reagan any less of a liberal than Walter Mondale? In reality Reagan probably was more of my type because he won by attacking Mondale's adherence to the label and in doing so turned it into a term of abuse for a generation.

If you'll let me take a couple of examples to illustrate the controversy over interpretations.

Is this an internal spiritual struggle of an external crusade which justifies extreme violence against others?

Does this describe the cyclical movement of time or the violent rebellion and overthrow of a failing regime?

Is this a term which divides a person from their fellow citizens by which power structures are created or is it a way of measuring the attributes of individuals collectively?

We can expand this method from abstractions to real objects.

A vehicle of personal liberation which encourages and enables freedom of movement, or a tool of slavery which locks us into compartmentalised lives isolated from physical contact with other humans... etc.

Your personal interpretation completely depends on your political perspective, so whenever you use any particular label it should also come with a big warning label that it may not have the connotations for others you intended.

So this line - 'where the British experienced an industrial revolution driven by the application of new power sources the French had a political revolution driven by the inventiveness of Madam Guillotine' is one I think draws a neat historical comparison which both amuses and enlightens.

oranjepan said...

I think I should also add (after some more thought) that it is (or at least I'm convinced it is) also healthy to be sceptical about the ends to which you put your pragmatic approach.

It's not good enough just doing something because you can - it's also important (and this is where values come into play) to be able to bring to bear a method of evaluation of whether what you have achieved is positive as well as whether you have been successful in achieving it.

Such a two-handed approach requires a balance of ideologies which can then be used to reinforce or undermine any conclusions to be drawn.

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