2013-05-08

Captured For Posterity

Update 5/13/2013:
Brennan did, in fact, post the article referenced below to the BHL website, with open comments. So I'm happy to report that some of my initial concerns over the article were ultimately unfounded. Most of my observations do, however, still stand.

****(end of update)****

I am not sure if this blog post from Jason Brennan at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog will reappear. It was posted this morning, a couple of hours ago, but when I now click the link, I get a 404 error. Perhaps it is in the process of being edited, but in its original format, I think it lends some insight into the whole concept of BHLers, and showcases some of the problems many of us have with them. I quote the originally-posted article here in its entirety, as it appeared in my RSS feed [ed note - because I cannot double-quote using Blogger's formatting tools, I have placed quotes within Brennan's post in italics; all other emphases are his.]:
In a previous post, I made the following remarks: 
The most cartoony version of NAP implies that any risk I impose upon you without your consent is wrong and violates your rights… 
…Rawls advocates the difference principle, which might in principle require redistribution. Many cartoon libertarians respond that this involves unjust aggression against innocent people and their property. 
One reader was not pleased by the label: 
I don’t get why Jason seems intent on “cartoony” rhetoric in this discussion. It really seems out of place given the quality of the bloggers and their articles. His post would have read more strongly without that one sentence. 
Why talk about cartoon libertarianism? As I see it, Matt’s posts about non-aggression and his posts in general at Libertarianism.org are meant to be a critique of cartoon libertarianism. He wants to show cartoon libertarians in a gentle way that their views are cartoony and don’t stand up to scrutiny. Many of their arguments are fallacious, their theories facile, and their objections to others’ positions are non-starters, but they just don’t realize it. Matt wants to help them reform. If anyone can do it, he can. 
Given what we know about political psychology–about how most of us suffer from massive confirmation bias and intergroup bias–we should expect that most libertarians are cartoon libertarians. It would be surprising if that were not the case. 
In a recent post, Bryan Caplan talks about there being a pyramid of sophistication when it comes to beliefs about macroeconomics
Tier 1, the Base of the Pyramid (50%): Partisans who loudly support Status Quo Macro Policy (SQMP) as long as “their side” is in power, and angrily oppose SQMP when “their side” isn’t in power.  See all the Democrats who supported Clinton’s austerity, and all the Republicans who supported Bush II’s profligacy. 
Tier 2 (30%): Ideologues who are sure that “active government policy” will work well/poorly, even though they can’t even explain “their side’s” arguments, much less the “other side’s” arguments. 
Tier 3 (10%): People who can parrot some basic textbook macroeconomics to support “their side,” but who can’t answer basic objections – or even accurately parrot the parts of the textbook that conflict with their views. 
Tier 4 (7%): People who understand a few Undeniable Macroeconomic Truths.  For Keynesians, these include: “Nominal wages are sticky,” “A lot of unemployment is involuntary,” and “Aggregate Demand matters.”  For anti-Keynesians, these include: “The safety net discourages job search and sustains unrealistic worker expectations,” “99 weeks of unemployment insurance makes nominal wages stickier,” and “Regular government spending is wasteful, and stimulus spending is worse.”  [...] 
Tier 5, the Apex of the Pyramid (3%): People who freely acknowledge the whole list of Undeniable Macroeconomic Truths, while taking all Questionable Macroeconomic Exotica with a grain of salt. 
My educated guess is that a roughly similar pyramid exists for sophistication about politics in general. Now, as I have argued at great length in the past, I don’t think there is anything particularly admirable or special about having political sophistication. Instead, I think it’s fine to be disengaged and unaware of politics. However, having strongly held opinions without sophistication or strong evidence for those opinions is a big epistemic sin. 
You might be a cartoon libertarian if:
1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today.
2. You think Ayn Rand’s critiques of Kant or Plato (or any philosopher, for that matter) are insightful.
3. You think “All taxation is theft” is a good premise to use in an argument with anyone from the Left.
4. You think it would be wrong to trespass on someone else’s property to stop him from letting a baby starve in a picture window.5.  You believe that Keynes was a hardcore leftist jerk, but you A) haven’t read any actual Keynes (who wasn’t actually a hardcore leftist at all), and B) you can’t explain the Keynesian rationale for fiscal policy.
6.  You think “The Seen and Unseen” or Economics in One Lesson present decisive objections to all government intervention.
7.  You have spent the last 30 years saying rampant inflation is just around the corner and the time to buy gold is now.
8.  Reading this makes you angry.9.  Reading this makes you angry.10.  You dogmatically assert self-ownership and then dogmatically use this to refute arguments for the welfare state.
11.  You believe there are no involuntary positive duties to others.
12. If you think you can describe how actual economies work just by manipulating definitions. You think you can refute behavioral economists by saying, “Oh, that’s behavior, not human action.”
13. You think it is conceptually impossible for most left-wing economic ideas to be false, so no empirical work is needed to evaluate them.
14. Reading this post made you angry or you thought it was unfair.
And so on.
What caught my eye immediately was the fact that comments were disabled for this post. On the one hand, it's not surprising, and I have no idea how common it is at BHL to disable comments. Nonetheless, whenever I see written opinions for which comments are disabled, I become about ten times more critical of the contents of the opinion. Why? Because it is a mark of cowardice and disdain for both criticism and dialogue to spout one's opinion and then subsequently refuse to discuss its impact on those to whom one speaks. If Brennan truly intended to disable the comments (and, because I am getting a 404 error, I cannot say for certain that he did), he has done something somewhat disrespectful to his audience.

I have a few additional reactions to the piece.

First, I think the commenter Brennan cites is absolutely spot-on. There is no need to denigrate some libertarians just because Brennan happens to think they are obtuse. Calling them "cartoonish" brings nothing to the discussion, other than avarice.

This is further highlighted by Brennan's synopsis of Matt Zwolinski's intentions when he wrote his critique of the Non-Aggression Principle. Brennan says: "Many of their arguments are fallacious, their theories facile, and their objections to others’ positions are non-starters, but they just don’t realize it. Matt wants to help them reform." Again, I can think of few words to describe Brennan's position here other than "avarice."

The coup de grace is, of course, Brennan's fourteen points of ridicule, which serves only to mock those with whom he disagrees by painting their ideas a ridiculous. The ideas covered in Brennan's list may indeed be ridiculous, but Brennan didn't actually show that; he merely mocked people for adhering to them.

This is precisely the opposite of Zwolinski's intention. Where Zwolinski identifies problems with the Non-Aggression Principle, he provides persuasive reasoning to win people over to his side of the issue. Contrast that to Brennan's mere name-calling of libertarians who don't subscribe to his view of what libertarians "should" think.

I may or may not agree as to whether Zwolinski is the right person to "reform" those poor, erroneous libertarians who aren't BHLers, but one thing is certain: When Brennan suggests that "If anyone can do it, [Zwolinski] can," the key take-away is that if anyone cannot convince libertarians to think more like "Bleeding Heart Libertarians," it is Brennan himself who comes up short.

However, this whole episode merely serves to highlight a separate point. The goal of BHLers has always appeared rather funny to me.

Typically when we take sides on issues, we want to win people over to our point of view, not merely for the satisfaction of having a crowd of people agree with us, but because we want to change the conditions of the world for the better.

So, for example, if a libertarian opposes gun control, she will want to convince others to also oppose gun control, not because life is better when more people oppose gun control, but because convincing others of her point of view helps ensure a particular policy outcome, namely an absence of strict anti-gun legislation.

But Bleeding Heart Libertarians frequently express criticism against and animosity toward fellow libertarians who share their policy goals. They don't seem to be interested in policy outcomes at all. They seem to be interested in creating a large group of bedfellows who share, not policy goals, but a common sense of how libertarians should think about things.

At best, it's a popularity contest. At worst, it's an effort at dominating and homogenizing a way of thinking that is defined by its individuality. Either way, it's wrong.

In conclusion, I'd like to make it clear that some of the authors at BHL are people whose thoughts I respect and greatly agree with. For example, I am a big fan of Roderick Long's (no relation, by the way), and also of Deirdre McCloskey's. Their articles and blog posts typically involve some sort of academic explanation of a particular phenomenon. Where that phenomenon has traditionally run against the libertarian grain (their take on the labor movement, for example), they provide traditional libertarian reasons for changing the minds of traditional libertarians.

They do not mock, ridicule, name-call, or otherwise criticize unfairly. Insofar as these folks reflect the goals of BHLers more broadly, I don't have a problem with BHLism. But insofar as their work supports what appears to be more of a discussion-domineering objective more reflective of the Brennans of the world, I think criticisms can be made.

So far, the BHL endeavor still seems fishy to me. Posts like Brennan's above merely underscore my suspicions.