All posts by pepperorient

Libertarians, a libertarian world won’t be perfect. But it doesn’t need to be.

John Faithful Hamer recently posted a great aphorism:

Having an answer for everything is the infallible sign of not having an answer for everything.

And followed it up with these candid remarks:
As is no doubt obvious, Chris, this aphorism is the product of recent dealings with people (three in one day!) with airtight ideological armor. One was an old-school communist I work with (who you know), another was an otherwise sweet Muslim friend who thinks the answers to everything are to be found in the Qur’an, and the last was a brilliant but intransigent libertarian.
As a libertarian, that last part resonated with me.

I’ve always tried to convince my libertarian compatriots away from trying to do what John just talked about: that is, arguing that libertarianism solves everything. Many libertarians—especially market-fundamentalist types—believe that their libertarian world will also maximize utility. (And here, you can fill in whatever you like for “utility”.) On virtually any issue, they will have a ready response detailing why and how a libertarian world—fitted, of course, with laissez-faire capitalism—will be the best at solving it.

It won’t. At some point, you just have to bite the bullet.

I remember being praised for my honesty by a gracious non-libertarian professor a while back for having admitting this. I said: “Look, sometimes a libertarian world won’t have as much x, or be able to address problem y as well as we would like. Indeed, there will always be problems that might be better solved through a central state apparatus (government intervention). But that’s the cost of respecting individual rights.”

What libertarians need to focus on is that last part. Sure, libertarians, it might feel like you’re “losing the debate” when you can’t convince the other side that a libertarian world will completely solve the issues with which they are concerned. But remind them: “What, then, is your solution that doesn’t violate people’s rights? Isn’t that a consideration too? What solution do you have for achieving your goals that doesn’t involve coercing or conscripting people into projects against their will or consent?”

If they can give you an answer that apparently solves every social problem without any apparent trade-offs, then you should be suspicious, for it looks like we’re back at square one. Having an answer for everything is the infallible sign of not having an answer for everything.

—Chris Nguyen

On Political Philosophies and “What Works”

This is mostly in response to John’s fine piece titled “Why Libertarians Are Like Judgy Know-It-Alls Who Don’t Have Kids”, which can be found here

The problem with arguments against normative theories that appeal to “what works” is that in them is already built a normative theory. As a result, they beg the question.

This took me a long time to realize, though Aaron Haspel clearly knew about this for awhile now. When I first met Aaron at John’s place and this topic came up, Aaron nonchalantly rattled off the above observation as though it were a matter of course. It was humbling and, to be honest, mildly embarrassing.

At any rate, in this fine piece, John writes that “Much in America works. And works very well.” But to libertarians (and Marxists, etc.), violating people’s rights doesn’t count as “working”, even if the overall arrangement is generally desirable or pleasant. This point is brought out especially well by Ursula Le Guin’s award-winning short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this story, Le Guin writes of a utopian city known as Omelas.

Omelas is shimmering, bright and beautiful. Everyone is happy, has food to eat and there is no social strife. Everything works wonderfully. However, Omelas has a dark secret. It turns out that the city’s splendor depends on the infliction of suffering and misery on a single child who is locked away in a basement.

When they come of age, each Omelian citizen is taken to see the child. The story is about the ones who, after seeing the child, decide in the dead of night when everyone’s asleep to walk away from Omelas.

The point is this: To those who walk away from Omelas, the city doesn’t “work.” For before we can do or judge what “works”, we need to know what counts as working. As normative theories, Marxism, libertarianism and (insert political philosophy here) try to provide the criteria for what counts as working.

Now, this does not take anything away from John’s insight that libertarians are very wrong—and indeed, childish—when they complain that the government does nothing well. The government undoubtedly provides many valuable services, and sometimes does so well and efficiently. To categorically say otherwise is false and, worse, dogmatic.

But on political philosophy more generally, I agree with Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen that our principles of justice (which are delivered by our particular political philosophies) ought to be fact-insensitive. That is, I don’t think facts about a principle’s feasibility (in terms of people’s willingness to comply with it) should count as evidence for or against the principle. More concretely, “But, in the real world, people will always rape!” is not a valid objection to “Rape is wrong.”

As the saying goes, Marxism may not work “in practice” because we are too selfish and greedy to be good Marxists, but most people agree that it’s morally the right way. That is enough to concede that Marxism is true. (Libertarians, of course, disagree.) Indeed, Marxism is just a normative thesis, and normative claims do not entail anything about what descriptively is or will be the case. Their truth stands independently of it.

Appeals to “what works”, then, either don’t count as any evidence against Marxism or libertarianism, or beg the question against them.

—Chris Nguyen

The “Burden of Proof”

Burdens of proof do not exist in philosophy, and insofar as they do, do not track, e.g., the distinction between positive and negative existential claims. The idea of the “burden of proof”, as it is used today, is mostly an artifact of the sloppy folk reasoning that goes on in New Atheism (and of popular but fallacious slogans like “You are never called upon to prove a negative!”, courtesy of Ayn Rand).

All positions carry a “burden of proof,” whether or not they are positive or negative, since all propositions must be justified with reasons and evidence. For instance, atheism is the proposition that “God does not exist.” As a result, many atheists will say that “Because it is a negative claim, I do not bear the burden of proof; instead, the theist does, because the theist is making the positive claim that God exists.” But this is completely wrong (and awfully convenient).

Rather, the “burden of proof” for atheism can be met; there is no need to pass it off like a hot potato. For example, the proposition “God does not exist” (let us label it G) is justified by our best scientific theories. That is, not-G contradicts our best scientific theories—theories for which we possess a lot of evidence. Therefore, we have strong reason to believe that G.

If there is any such thing as the burden of proof in philosophy, it has to do with what’s called a “dialectical burden of proof,” which is nothing more than the following: Reasons and evidence have been provided for x. You hold ~x. Unless you can provide us with reasons and evidence for ~x that outweigh the reasons and evidence we have for x, then we rationally ought to hold x.

Again, insofar as there is such thing as a burden of proof, it is not drawn with a view to negative vs. positive statements, nor anything having to do with either x or ~x being inoculated from justification.

Indeed, if “faith” is supposed to be belief in something without evidence, then those who declare that they do not bear the burden of proof are engaging in a clear exercise of faith, for they are literally saying that they are entitled to believe a certain proposition (e.g., “God does not exist”) without any reasons and evidence required to justify it.

—Chris Nguyen

A Note on the Meaning of “Capitalism” and its Relation to Libertarianism

“No one should attempt to describe a utopia unless he’s recently reread, for example, the works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Rabelais and Dostoevsky to remind himself of how different people are.”—Robert Nozick

The term “capitalism” has multiple meanings. Unfortunately, very few people make it sufficiently clear which one they mean before supporting or criticizing capitalism.

The term “capitalism” has both descriptive and normative senses:

  1. Descriptive sense: A society or economy characterized by for-profit enterprise, markets, a price system, trade and so on. (Imagine Wall Street and stock market tickers.)
  2. Normative sense: The proposition that it is morally permissible for individuals to own the means of production.

How we use the term “capitalism” is not merely a semantic quibble; it bears significant consequences for political philosophy. Let us, as an example, take right-libertarianism in its standard philosophical formulation, and label the descriptive usage of capitalism “d-capitalism” and the normative usage “n-capitalism.”

Although most people think libertarians are committed to defending d-capitalism, it is demonstrably untrue that libertarianism requires, or otherwise entails, d-capitalism. It is therefore false that a libertarian is someone who must, in virtue of being a libertarian, endorse d-capitalism. Rather, libertarianism only entails n-capitalism.

What this implies (and it may be surprising) is that libertarianism is compatible with socialism

Let us unpack this a little bit:

Libertarianism contains the view (i.e., it analytically entails, by definition) that it is permissible for individuals to own the means of production (i.e., n-capitalism). It does not entail the proposition that it is obligatory for individuals to own the means of production, nor from this does it follow that according to libertarianism, private ownership of the means of production is, say, desirable or good. All n-capitalism means, more concretely, is that it is permissible for an individual to own a bakery.

Indeed, libertarianism does not require that society resemble or be organized according to some market order; it does not obligate, approve of, find praiseworthy, etc. the world described by d-capitalism. In fact, even d-capitalism’s juxtaposition—e.g., a world without profit-seeking, or a world in which all firms are owned by its workers, or one where economic life is centrally planned, etc.—is fully compatible with libertarianism. Libertarianism simply does not decide between the two.

If this is right, then most critics of libertarianism do not actually disagree with libertarianism to the extent they believe they do, for insofar as one’s disagreements with libertarianism are reducible to objections against d-capitalism, one is not disagreeing with libertarianism proper. But more interestingly, this also means that many (if not most) libertarians have misunderstood the view to which they subscribe.

This raises the obvious question: “Why, then, do so many libertarians defend free market capitalism with such vigour? How can so many be systematically mistaken about their own views?” I think this question has an important metaphilosophical answer: one philosophers—such as the great liberal-egalitarian political philosopher, John Rawls—have explored in their discussions of reflective equilibrium. But for the sake of brevity, it is a question to be explored another time.

—Chris Nguyen


One of my Favorite Philosophical Problems, and Why I Study Philosophy

One of my favorite problems in philosophy has always been the classical problem of induction. (I will explain what it is in a moment!) Admittedly, this is partly because at barbecues and other social gatherings, the problem of induction really brings to the fore two things I passionately want to share with others: (1) What philosophy is and what philosophers of today even think about; (2), how mind-blowing—and fun—some of these philosophical problems really are. Philosophy produces a lot of food for thought, and I guess I’m just a big Hungry Hungry Hippo®. Continue reading One of my Favorite Philosophical Problems, and Why I Study Philosophy