This post is mostly by way of trying to make Bertram, Robins and Gourvitch’s post sticky, as it deserves to stay at the top for a while. If you haven’t read their post yet, do so. If you are already reasonably conversant with their points, proceed under the fold, if you like, for what is really just a Hayek-inflected restatement and reinforcement of some of their main points. (Also, it’s effectively a late, long footnote to the Red Plenty seminar):
The BHL’s haven’t responded, but the Marginal Revolution folks are on the case – Tyler Cowen; Alex Tabarrok. Both responses illustrate the Bertram/Robins/Gourevitch (hereafter: BRG!) thesis: namely, libertarians are either liberals (in a Rawlsian sort of way) or not the freedom-lovers they claim to be. Tabarrok and Cowen fall into the latter camp.
The mistake Cowen and Tabarrok make, which the BHL’ers tend to make (except for Jacob Levy and Will Wilkinson, in his guest post, and maybe someone else over there whose stuff I haven’t read) is one Hayek warns against in The Constitution of Liberty:
It would also be absurd to argue that young people who are just entering into active life are free because they have given their consent to the social order into which they were born: a social order to which they probably know no alternative and which even a whole generation who thought differently from their parents could alter only after they had reached mature age. But this does not, or need not, make them unfree. The connection which is often sought between such consent to the political order and individual liberty is one of the sources of the current confusion about its meaning. Anyone is, of course, entitled to “identify liberty . . . with the process of active participation in public power and public law making.” Only it should be made clear that, if he does so, he is talking about a state other than that with which we are here concerned, and that the common use of the same word to describe these different conditions does not mean that the one is in any sense an equivalent or substitute for the other. The danger of confusion here is that this use tends to obscure the fact that a person may vote or contract himself into slavery and thus consent to give up freedom in the original sense. It would be difficult to maintain that a man who voluntarily but irrevocably had sold his services for a long period of years to a military organization such as the Foreign Legion remained free thereafter in our sense; or that a Jesuit who lives up to the ideals of the founder of his order and regards himself “as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will” could be so described. Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom. Moreover, it would seem that discussing the value of freedom would be pointless if any regime of which people approved was, by definition, a regime of freedom.
If you voluntarily contract yourself into slavery, it does not follow that you are still free. Hayek wants to wield this as an argument against construing participatory political power as either necessary or sufficient for ensuring freedom. But it works as well as an argument against the sufficiency of ensuring contracting power, as a mechanism for maximizing freedom. (Hayek himself misses this.)
This classically Hayekian point is one of BRG’s main points:
The larger problem lies in the simplistic notion that the ability to freely enter or exit the workplace disposes of the problem of freedom inside the workplace. On the front end, most libertarians believe that contracts are freedom-preserving: so long as they aren’t coerced or fraudulent, there are no freedom-related objections to be made. But this is a mistake. If someone contracted to be the slave to another person for a year, with no possibility of exit, surely that initial moment of consent does not preserve the slave’s freedom for the remaining 364 days of the year.
Here we can get into a genuine argument about effective ease of entry and exit, in real life, which is going to be substantially an empirical argument about variable circumstances and overall socio-economic conditions. The BHL’ers want to guarantee a minimum income. BRG make the point that 1) this is more than we are going to get in practice; 2) it’s not enough to have the desired effect, i.e. making people always free to leave, in effect. Let’s set all this aside for a moment. BRG are unquestionably right about this much: if you sell yourself into slavery, you are a slave, not free, for the duration of your period of servitude. Even if the sale was voluntary. As I said, the BHL’ers miss this. And now Cowen and Tabarrok.
Cowen is confused about what BRG are getting at: “Is the complaint that workers aren’t getting enough of the pie?” Various possiblities as to what they might want are canvassed but, significantly, he does not consider that the answer might be: freedom. (Why is freedom-as-ideal a blind spot for Cowen? Because he thinks he’s already aiming at it, so they can’t be. But he’s wrong on both scores. This is the point.) More negatively: BRG are making the point that libertarians are unconcerned with maximizing freedom. The proof is simple. Different ways of regulating the workplace will plausibly increase freedom-as-non-coercion relative to the levels that a libertarian regime will produce, and libertarians are not willing to go for it. They are unwilling in principle. From which it follows that libertarians are not concerned to maximize freedom. They are maximizing contract rights and property rights. They don’t see they are not, hereby, maximizing freedom because they make the mistake Hayek diagnoses (and then frequently makes himself): contracting away your freedom is not tantamount to keeping it. Perhaps contract rights are more important than freedom. But don’t say you are maximizing freedom when really you are actually trading it away for a different good.
If the CTrs were merely arguing for greater economic growth there would be little with which to argue – who doesn’t want bigger televisions and better working conditions? The CTrs, however, confuse wealth and political freedom. Bigger televisions don’t make you more free and neither do better working conditions, even though both goods are desirable.
A job is an exchange with mutual consent and benefits on both sides of the bargain. The freedom is in the right to exchange not in the price at which the exchange occurs.
No and no. BRG are not saying workers need to be paid more (though I have no doubt they would say so, if asked). More to the point: freedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom. This is, to repeat, an orthodox Hayekian point (albeit one that Hayek loses track of more often than not.) The shoe could not fit more snugly on the other foot, then: Tabarrok says BRG are systematically conflating wealth (things like TV’s) with freedom. But in fact they are keeping them separate and Tabarrok is conflating them, opting for wealth when they come apart.
Let’s go back to basics. What is libertarianism? Let’s stick with Hayek as a paradigm, for simplicity. Libertarianism does not take freedom as an end but as a means. Hayek is a utilitarian, not a Kantian. “If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.” If Red Plenty came true – if central planning produced more goods people really wanted – Hayek would be a communist. (I don’t believe him. But he says so right there.)
So why put freedom on a pedestal, nominally, if it’s just a means to whatever actually belongs on the pedestal? Basically, because the thing that actually belongs on the pedestal can’t be directly aimed at (Red Plenty will never work). In part we don’t even know what it is: the true standard of overall welfare for humanity; something like that. Even if we were sure what that meant, we still don’t have enough knowledge to aim at it. The best we can do is let loose all the knowledge locked up in all the individual people in the world. Maximizing freedom is the best proxy for maximizing welfare for humanity. (Freedom is the only god we can name, even though there is also an unnamed god that the named god, freedom, serves.) So how do you maximize freedom? Here rubber meets road. You don’t maximize it by ensuring property and contract rights the way Hayek and other libertarians want. As BRG say, this will sometimes result in less freedom, overall, than you might otherwise attain, due to the fact that ensuring these rights is consistent with the emergence of highly coercive, freedom-destroying private regimes of power.
Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom. (Indeed, a lot of what Cowen and Tabarrok have to say amounts to saying that BRG are slighting other goods that may be more valuable than freedom: “How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?”) What they can’t say is that contract rights guarantee freedom, much less that guaranteeing contract rights maximizes freedom.
At this point the BHL’ers, Cowen and Tabarrok will want to reply: sez you! It’s a complicated and substantially empirical question what arrangements will really maximize freedom. In a tight labor market, workers hold the whip hand even if, at other times, management may have the upper-hand, driving wages down and cutting bathroom breaks if they like. “How about a brief mention of the fact that workplace regulations, in practice, very often are used to protect insiders and restrict employment for outsiders?”
But getting into the empirical weeds like this gives the game away. Actually existing libertarianism is not a philosophy of ‘I wonder what will maximize freedom-as-non-coercion. It’s complicated, but whatever it is, I’ll do it.’ Libertarianism isn’t a philosophy that blows different directions in the shifting winds of the labor market – coming out against unions when they get bloated and corrupt and exclusive but turning against management and capital when they are, as they certainly may be, objectively greater threats to freedom than any actually existing labor union. Actually existing libertarianism is the philosophy of treating as axiomatic that maximizing contract/property rights is tantamount to maximizing freedom. But, even if this happens to be contingently correct, in some circumstances – even in many circumstances – treating contingent truths as axioms is very confused.
Suppose we soften the libertarian position to be less dogmatically axiomatic (I know some of the BHL’ers will indeed want to do this): let’s be ‘rule libertarians’ on the model of ‘rule utilitarians’. We all know that sometimes killing old ladies and distributing their money to the poor might increase overall utility, but we don’t let people do it because more often we’ll get into some awful Raskolnikov mess. Don’t trust people to make that sort of call on a case-by-case basis. Likewise, even if sometimes instituting worker protections would increase freedom, we don’t let people do it because more often than not we’ll get into some awful union-type mess. The fact is: that last claim, just sitting there on its own, is not empirically plausible enough to justify ‘rule libertarianism’. At any rate, even if you decided at the policy level that rule libertarianism was less bad than the alternatives, at the theory level you would have to grant the point that, on a case by case basis, the non-libertarians might be often right about what is freedom-maximizing. (Just as rule utilitarians admit that, on a case by case basis, the Raskolnikov’s of the world are technically correct in their thinking.)
Let me conclude by asking an important question: why does even Hayek make the mistake of not seeing that he is plainly making the mistake that he himself diagnoses as a clear mistake? Let’s sharpen the point. Hayek writes: “In the sense in which we use the term [liberty], the penniless vagabond who lives precariously by constant improvisation is indeed freer than the conscripted soldier with all his security and relative comfort. But if liberty may therefore not always seem preferable to other goods, it is a distinctive good that needs a distinctive name.”
But if the vagabond is freer than the soldier, he is pretty clearly also freer, by Hayekian lights, then an office worker who has little say in how her contract is expansively interpreted, to suit management’s tastes – even if she is, like the soldier, more secure and comfortable than the vagabond.
If Hayek really wanted freedom most, there is a sense in which he should have written Down And Out In Paris And London; or On The Road – not The Road To Serfdom. If vagabonds are most free, then vagabondage should be our free ideal. There’s something a bit screwy here, and it has to do with Hayek’s excessive refusal to consider that an important component of freedom is positive capacity to do the things you want to do (not just absence of coercion).
But set that aside (important though it is). Hayek fails to see that he is not actually interested in maximizing freedom because, actually, he thinks that some people’s freedom is a lot more valuable than other people’s freedom. Liberals always want to ensure the maximum freedom consistent with enjoyment of that freedom by all. Hayek is definitely not on board with that sort of egalitarianism regarding freedom: “To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to misconceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.” Ideally, we would find that one man and even make all others his slaves, if that is what it took to let him exercise his freedom to the fullest. Hayek thus affirms a freedom monster argument somehat analogous to the classic pleasure monster reductio. But obviously the point would not be that the man might have some preposterously bottomless capacity to be free. Rather, Hayek is saying that a world with much less freedom – a world in which this one-man-in-a-million is even a tyrant, perhaps – is better than a world full of freedom.
Of course, it doesn’t matter, because Hayek is insistent that we can’t identify that man. (He is yet another god we cannot name.) So we have no choice but to maximize freedom, i.e. give everyone roughly the same dose of the stuff. Maximizing freedom is thus not really even second best, overall, but third best. Best: maximize welfare (but we can’t and don’t even really know what that means). Second best: maximize freedom for only those who can best maximize welfare (but we can’t pick them out of a line-up). Third best: maximize freedom. But really I think it’s pretty likely Hayek thinks (or feels) we can actually do a bit better than third best. We can pick out a class of people who are likely to be better users of freedom. This is no part of Hayek’s official philosophy, but the reason he sees coercion on one side (workers) not the other (employers), even when this is flagrantly inconsistent with his own philosophy, is that he has a strong intuition that the freedoms of workers are less valuable. Employers/capital/management will be more likely to want to do things that will, on the whole, benefit everyone. So it is more important for them to be able to do what they want. I think this unexpressed conviction explains a lot of the oddities in Hayek’s writings.
This view that Hayek is really all about the hierarchy – freedom for the better people – seems to fit with Corey Robin’s standard line on the reactionary mind. But I would be more even-handed in spreading the blame. The BHL’s often emphasize that liberals and leftists don’t place enough value on economic liberty. See their seminar on Tomasi’s book. Short version: I actually agree with Tomasi about a lot of stuff. I think he’s right that Rawls is too narrow in granting citizens only ‘thin’ economic basic rights. (I’m not sure I accept Tomasi’s solution but I do accept his diagnosis that there is a problem.) Another example: I think G.A. Cohen’s camping trip analogy, in Why Not Socialism?, is terrible and does great damage to his case. (If you have an argument to which ‘but life is often not like a camping trip’ would be, if true, a quite deadly objection, then you have an argument with troubles.) Cohen just doesn’t get why people want to be economic actors of a certain sort. It’s not his thing. That’s ok, but it deforms his theory. This is a common disease: political theory as crypto-virtue ethics. You have a perhaps rather narrow sort of character ideal in mind, playing no official part in your theory, but exerting a great influence over its overall shape. J.S. Mill, for example, obviously exalts a certain sort of contrarian, cosmopolitan individualist. On Liberty is justly charged with begging the question, rather badly, on behalf of the sort of person Mill most admires. Hayek may be guilty of nothing worse: he admires economic actors of a certain sort more than other people. He maximizes freedom for them, while genuinely thinking he is maximizing it for everyone.
As a reward for reading my whole post, may I point out that the best album of the year, Regina Spektor’s What We Saw From The Cheap Seats [amazon] is
on seriously cheap seat 99 cent sale. She is such an amazing songwriter. I think someone should start a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of bribing politicians to make it illegal for Tom Waits not to cover “Firewood”.