Situationism And Libertarianism

Long-time Stationary Waves readers know that I am critical of paradigms because they limit our ability to allow for alternate explanations. So while Situationist analysis feels like a good way to analyze social psychology, it's easy to abuse it to the point that it becomes a "just-so" story. I was relieved, then to read a statement Philip Zimbardo makes in his book The Lucifer Effect suggesting that we look first at Situational factors, then consider Dispositional factors only after you've exhausted the Situational analysis. I like this because it displays an admirable dose of intellectual humility; Zimbardo doesn't say he has all the answers, but he does claim to have some.

Meanwhile, as I "practice at home" a little, I have been discovering how powerful Situational anlysis can be. In particular, keeping the overall situational context in mind when evaluating observed behavior has the effect of making me a much more forgiving and empathetic person by discouraging me from drawing unfair conclusions about people.

I have paired this perspective with something David Henderson recently wrote:
When I deal with angry cops, I think of how I dealt with my father when he got irrationally angry. I pictured him as a big angry bear. You don't morally judge a bear; he does what bears do. I didn't morally judge my father--or, at least, tried not to appear to judge him in the moment. I just treaded carefully.
Situationism is a good piece to add to Henderson's already-good advice because it reminds us that, in some other situation or in a slightly different set of circumstances, we're the bear.

That's one example of how Situationism pairs well with libertarian ethics. There are more. Today at EconLog, Bryan Caplan published a wonderful post about the adverse impact of what he calls the "social undesirability bias," which I have noticed but never fully articulated. It's an excellent post, so please do read the whole thing. Down below it, commentator "Ben Kennedy" writes:
Sometimes I feel that some of the stronger anti-state Libertarian rhetoric falls into this category. One can easily immerse themselves in the opinion that not only is government incompetent, it is essential merciless gang of thieves that parasitizes society etc etc. Of course there is some truth to this position, e.g. the insights of public choice theory. However, the case is regularly overstated - I'm pretty sure the nice lady in the children's section of my local library is not an evil parasite (and most policemen are perfectly nice people as well)
Kennedy is probably right that "some rhetoric" falls into this category, and yet look at his counter-examples. Notice anything special about them? They are strongly steeped in dispositional analysis. The government can't be "parasitic," because, after all, many nice people he knows work in the library or on the police force.

It's a powerful comment, but it is made much weaker by a situational understanding of the state. Tasked with burning books, would the nice lady at the library quit her job, drag her feet, or acquiesce without even so much as question? If that seems like a silly example, then let's pretend she's not a librarian, but a county clerk, and let's pretend she's not asked to burn books, but to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Now the "libertarian" orientation of the librarian goes against my own personal view, but the result is clear: The nice lady doesn't quit. She drags her feet and makes a big stink over it, then ultimately goes back to her job and complies with the law.

If you think this doesn't matter because, hey, she can go sit on a tack because gay marriage is the law now, sucker! then you're missing the point. For two hundred years, gay marriage was against the law, and county clerks enforced that law. They were all nice people in a rotten situation, and that rotten situation was the state.

As for nice police officers, I've met them, too. But I've also seen the evidence: there are a lot of nice people sticking up for other nice people who did bad things in rotten situations.

Situational analysis allows us to understand why people do the things they do, but it doesn't exonerate them. If you know that, say, being a prison guard is a high-risk situation in terms of making people do bad things, and you decide to become a prison guard anyway, long before those situation forces exert themselves on you, then you're morally culpable. That's true for the same reason that a heroin addict is morally culpable for his addiction long before he's actually addicted, because the risks of heroin injection are already widely understood.

Ultimately, pairing Situationism with libertarianism makes good intuitive sense, provides a way to come to clear moral decisions without unnecessarily antagonizing good people, and consistently works with traditionally libertarian ideas like public choice theory and behavioral economics.

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