Bleeding Heart Conservatism

At BHL, Jason Brennan challenges traditional libertarians who “advocate a purely negative rights-based theory of justice, but who also believe that under ideal libertarian institutions, markets would work really well at making most people better off.” He points out that the latter is an empirical prediction that could in some hypothetical be false. Were it false, would you still be a libertarian? And by extension, he challenges everyone to answer this question, with the relevant counter-factual.

To me, this illustrates the central problem with utilitarianism. To rephrase the question: “Should you do the right thing, if doing the right thing has costs?” The answer is obvious – “Yes, but be prepared to pay the penalty.” That is the very nature of a moral dilemma. If it was always easy and painless to do the right thing, we wouldn’t worry about morality. Utilitarians try and obfuscate this by pretending that the right thing is always the thing with least costs – it is essentially a denial of morality.

That is why I find libertarians such untrustworthy allies – Brennan is essentially saying that he’d seize my property if he thought it would help others, but it probably wouldn’t so he’ll let me keep it. Oh, thank you! But my right to my property does not rest on the societal benefits it may or may not bring, it rests on the fact that it is mine, that no-one has the right to take it from me. This is why I find arguments that private property is most “efficient” so distressing – they may be true, but they undercut the real nature of property, which is that I am free to use it inefficiently – it is mine uti et abuti.

Although this hypothetical would not change my morality, it might change my politics. Democratic politics is war, and even autocratic politics is simply counter-insurgency. Just as it’s no good implementing the most morally perfect laws if they can’t be enforced, it’s no good implementing the most structurally perfect laws if they lead to a revolution. Even the ideal government will still be dealing with real subjects, so that means it just has to do the best it can. And in Brennan’s counterfactual, that “best” would be significantly worse than what is currently possible.

And yes, that above paragraph referred to subjects, not citizens. Perhaps I can sum it up best by quoting the only saint the Church of England has ever canonised:

“For the people; And truly I desire their Liberty and Freedom as much as any Body whomsoever. But I must tell you, that their Liberty and Freedom consists in having of Government; those Laws, by which their Life and their Goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.”

Amazingly, the speech doesn’t mention utility functions anywhere.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: