Friday, October 28, 2011

In Response to Massimo Pigliucci

As far as criticisms of libertarianism go, I am hard-pressed to think of one quite as shallow and unconvincing as the one presented by philosopher and part-time crying opera clown Massimo Pigliucci.  I followed Massimo’s Facebook page for a while, as, despite his statist views on government, he and I share a common interest in the skepticism movement, and he is a sort of third-tier member of the New Atheist movement (he once shared a debate stage with William Lane Craig, the Christian apologist who has also debated the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.) 

Most of Massimo’s critique of the libertarian philosophy (which can be found here) is actually not so much a critique as an unflattering description.  He writes at length about the various obscure off-shoots of libertarianism, such as anarcho-syndicalism (which is really just updated Marxism), anarcho-capitalism and Objectivism. 

Mainstream libertarians find a great deal to disagree with in all three of these ideologies, but there are also many individual issues on which we can find agreement (just as we can with both liberals and conservatives.)  None of them make up the mainstream of libertarian thought, which is that government should hold to the three duties prescribed to it in Adam Smith’s 1776 book, Wealth of Nations:  1) The administration of jurisprudence, 2) The defense of the nation against outside enemies, and 3) The provision and maintenance of a very narrowly defined class of public goods. 

The fact that Massimo so heavily delved into the offshoot movements without having much to say about mainstream libertarianism tells me that most of his “research” was done by reading through the Wikipedia series on libertarianism. 

After describing the various tangential movements in libertarianism, Massimo goes on to fight dirty: 

“There is the dark side of things, the infamous episode of the “Chicago Boys,” a group of libertarian economists trained at the University of Chicago who provided active, and in fact crucial, assistance to the illegitimate government of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, thereby supporting a tyranny that ended up being responsible for the death of 3,000, the incarceration or torture of another 28,000, and the suspension of civil liberties in that country for a decade and a half.”

Now, it is worth mentioning here that libertarians despise infringements on personal liberties just as much as we despise infringements on economic liberties.  To try to blame government oppression on libertarianism is like trying to blame a fire on the firefighters trying to put it out. 

The influence of libertarians on Pinochet was strictly economic.  The ‘Chicago Boys’ plan laid out by Jorge Cauas, Sergio De Castro, Pablo Barahona and other Chilean economists who studied at the University of Chicago dealt with three things:  The elimination of trade barriers, the privatization of government-owned enterprises and the stabilization of inflation.  None of these have anything whatsoever to do with incarcerating or torturing innocent civilians. 

These reforms did produce a prosperous economy, known to economists as ‘the Chilean Miracle’, as Massimo goes on to admit, which ultimately led to a vibrant and politically empowered middle class, which in turn led to the expansion of political and civil freedom alongside the economic freedom, as Milton Friedman predicted it would when the ‘Chicago Boys’ reforms were implemented.  It is very rare in the course of human events that economic freedom does not go hand-in-hand with political and social freedom and Chile was no exception. 

The opposite is true of collectivist societies like the USSR or Yugoslavia.  It was impossible for those nations to maintain state-control of the economy without also using force to suppress dissent and they emerged from oppression not as the result of increased prosperity but as the result of complete economic collapse and violent turmoil. 

Rather than look for single data points to confirm his bias, I would suggest to Massimo that he look for the rule of history, and the rule has always been this:  Wherever we see an increasing degree of economic freedom, an advance in civil and political freedom soon follows. 

After slinging the mud about Pinochet, Massimo lapses into using ‘anarchism’ synonymously with libertarianism and starts punching a straw man.  He says that human nature is “still too darn selfish and greedy for [anarchy] to work.” 

Problem is, most libertarians aren’t anarchists.  We just believe the government should keep taxes as low as possible, should not tell people what they cannot eat or drink or smoke, should not invade other countries, should not take on the role of a charity, should not tell you what kind of products or services you can and cannot buy and sell and for what price, should not subsidize junk food, should not debase the currency and should not, above all else, bail out failing multi-billion dollar corporations with our tax dollars!  We’ve got no problem with a government that protects people from directly harming or lying to one another, we just believe that government’s role should be limited to that.  After all, the bumper sticker says “less government”, not “no government”. 

Massimo goes on to argue for a state-run economy by saying that “modern societies are made of millions, often hundreds of millions, of individuals, and on that scale a society simply cannot exist without a functional government.”  But this argument works both ways—the bigger a society gets, the more difficult central planning of its economy becomes.  A small village may be easily run by a central planner.  A medium-sized town would be more difficult.  A nation of hundreds of millions?  Why don’t you ask the people who would wait hours in line for bread in the Soviet Union how well their central planners did? 

A free market economy is organized by people trading the goods and services they can produce most efficiently for the goods and services they desire the most.  No central organization is needed because it is organized from the ground up.  For someone who consistently argues that the complexities of the global ecosystem emerged without any intelligent designer guiding the process, Massimo displays a surprising lack of faith in the idea of naturally emergent order. 

Finally, Massimo comes to what he believes is a knock-down argument—the idea of property rights.  He is right that most libertarians consider property rights to be of paramount importance.  This is a very simple progression:  1) no other person can have a claim to your mind and your body, 2) property is produced by your mind and your body, either through direct invention/cultivation or through trade, 3) no other person can have a claim to your property that supersedes your own.   

In other words, since your property is the product of your mind and your body, to say someone else has a claim to your property that overrides your own is to say that they have a claim to use your mind and body that overrides your own.  Even simpler, if someone else can claim your property without your consent, you are a slave. 

Massimo thinks that need somehow overrides self-ownership as an epistemological origin of property rights.  He cites a hypothetical situation where someone is dying of thirst in front of a man who owns some water.  The weak point in the libertarian philosophy, Massimo claims, is that it does not allow for the parched man to have a justifiable right to the water that the other man owns.  Massimo dismisses the idea out of hand that the water-owner will voluntarily give the parched man a drink because that, in Massimo’s opinion, is an unrealistic view of human nature (I don’t exactly know where he developed this view of human nature, but remind me never to go to this guy’s house when I’m collecting money for the local soup kitchen!)

But what are the practical implications of Massimo’s idea that need, and not production, justifies ownership?  Well, parched and starving people are not just the province of hypothetical stories told by philosophy professors.  Believe it or not, they actually exist!  And according to Massimo, they are entitled to your stuff.  No, you don’t just have an ethical responsibility or a charitable impulse to help them.  Just like the parched man is allowed to take the water from the man who (I imagine) dug a well, so too do starving people have a right to take your food (or, by extension, anything you have earned that they can use to trade for food.)  This is why Massimo Pigliucci has given all of his worldly possessions to Child Fund and promised to contribute 100% of his future earnings to feed starving children (or at least I assume he has, judging from his positions on the issue.)

It is very easy to see the libertarian basis for property rights—you own your body and mind, therefore you own whatever your body and mind produces, or whatever you get from trading what you produce.  But what basis does Massimo offer for need replacing production as the faculty that justifies ownership?  Well, and I’m not kidding here, his only justification for this is that thinking otherwise makes you “end up looking mean and uncaring”.  Now, I want you to take a second and remember that THIS IS COMING FROM A PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHER!

Okay, so maybe the crying philosopher-clown didn’t really devote much time to his critique of libertarianism.  Maybe he thought it was not an influential enough ideology to spend much time thinking about.  That’s giving him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m willing to do it. 

Next time, Massimo, try putting a little effort into it. 


  1. Ben,

    1 of 3:
    Splendid! I engaged Massimo and his cadre of tenured ignorati through his multi-part "analysis" of Objectivism a year or so ago, and can confirm in spades that he and they are not only devoid of any understanding of the necessary relationship of free minds and markets to each and every human being's ability to survive and flourish, they are also way beyond any hope of learning it. The devious and dishonest arguments with which they have fortified what you aptly called their mere "unflattering descriptions" in lieu of cogent ideas and rebuttals are no longer worth exerting any effort to penetrate (except for sport, of course.)

    Of all your clear explanations so immanently graspable by lurking honest minds, the best by far was this one I will steal from you and use frequently in the future:

    "For someone who consistently argues that the complexities of the global ecosystem emerged without any intelligent designer guiding the process, Massimo displays a surprising lack of faith in the idea of naturally emergent order."

    How on earth did I fail to see this great contradiction of the liberal mindset? Thank you.

  2. 2 of 3:
    And now that my gratitude and praise are duly noted, maybe we might disagree a little. As an Objectivist, I wondered right away if you were one of those "mainstream libertarians" nurturing disagreements with Rand's political thinking or just reporting them to us; but farther along, I found two disagreements you possibly share, and one certain one.

    1) " the mainstream of libertarian thought, which is that government should hold to the three duties prescribed to it in Adam Smith’s 1776 book, Wealth of Nations: ... 3) The provision and maintenance of a very narrowly defined class of public goods."

    Whether you personally agree with Adam Smith here or not, many libertarians do regard 3) above as a function of government and that is one reason Rand condemned them. Her opposition to the Libertarian movement was that it was a politics perpetually in flight from its necessary ethical root and precisely errors such as this one is where they inevitably land. I need only apply your own stated principle ...

    "We’ve got no problem with a government that protects people from directly harming or lying to one another, we just believe that government’s role should be limited to that."

    ... to exclude 3) above from being a justifiable pursuit of any government.

    2) "We just believe the government should keep taxes as low as possible"

    You do? And how do you justify those lowest of low taxes? How do you square any tax of any kind with your own central argument against Massimo that the product of one's mind and body is one's own property against which no one else has any claim?

    3) "It is very easy to see the libertarian basis for property rights—you own your body and mind, therefore you own whatever your body and mind produces, or whatever you get from trading what you produce."

    I do not know when the "ownership of your own body" thing originated—prior to Rand and the benefit of her explanations, or later devised to evade or obviate any association with Objectivism. Be that as it may, the idea is presently the Achilles Heel of Libertarianism.

    Ownership is a qualification of possession, which is a relationship between a living creature and some external object. The word possession does not denote a relationship between any creature and its own physical self. That physical self is not something it possesses, it is what it is.

    Ownership distinguishes possession that is justifiable from possession that is not. To be justifiable is a normative relationship—one that distinguishes right from wrong, an alternative exclusive to volitional animals, i.e. human beings. Therefore, ownership—of self or anything else—is not axiomatic, but rather is an ethical qualification that must have a root in and rest on some more fundamental ethical principle.

    Libertarians are, for the most part, pragmatists who are captivated by the obvious efficacy of free market economics, out of which they understandably sought and seek to devise a politics of liberty. Understandable, that is, until Ayn Rand came along and demonstrated that to be exactly backwards. Politics is a derivative of ethics, not economics, which is merely the applied science explaining human action given this or that political context.

    Politics, Rand explains, is the extension of ethics, in the context of the life of an individual, into the context of the individual's life in a society of men with long-term interrelationships. Politics, in short, is the extension of ethics in an individual context, to a social context. No politics, therefore, can be validated without reference to a valid ethics from which it must necessarily derive and on which it must necessarily rest. Libertarians have no such ethics with which to support the moral superiority of freedom over force. Rand does. So the Libertarians just asserted self-ownership as a self-evident axiom, which it is decidedly not.

  3. 3 of 3:
    Without any demonstrable moral imperative for liberty from force, the Libertarians are perpetually vulnerable to tiny compromises like "a narrowly defined class of public goods" and "taxes as low as possible." The fallacy of pragmatism is that it has no moral borders.

    Your understanding of the significance of "the product of one's mind and body" is spot on. It derives, however, not from self-ownership, but rather from the law of identity—from the facts of reality that define and specify the nature of a human being.

    These are the facts of human nature that necessitate a moral right of any human being to the product of his own mind and effort:

    1) The existence of living organisms is conditional on self-generated action in the face of alternatives.

    2) The most fundamental of all alternatives for all living creatures is life or death.

    3) Of all living creatures, only man can choose which alternative to pursue.

    4) The choice (deliberate or implied in all other choices) to pursue the fundamental alternative of life makes life one's fundamental goal.

    5) One's fundamental goal is implicitly the standard of measure for all values one acts to gain or keep in its pursuit.

    6) Therefore, that which contributes to one's life (consistent with one's nature, of course—not a mere vegetative existence) is necessarily "the good", and that which detracts from it is "the bad".

    7) The long run pursuit of life necessitates a hierarchical code of values in principle (= ethics) to guide (by programming emotions) one's spontaneous choices in any alternative faced, and it requires one to opt for the higher value per that code in lieu of the lower one (= morality of egoism).

    8) Man's singular means to fulfill these requirements of his nature in the pursuit of life is by applying the product of his reason to his actions in the production and exchange of values needed to survive and flourish consistent with the nature of the human being he is.

    9) The extension of that individual ethic to the social context of an individual living in a society of other volitional (and therefore fallible) men requires that one seek to preserve one's own autonomy over the application of one's own reason to one's own action in the pursuit of one's own life (= freedom from the fallibility of others).

    10) The only threat to a man's pursuit of his life in that context would be the initiation or threat of physical force by others to coerce certain choices of action against his will thus diminishing the above defined individual autonomy.

    11) The single most fundamental political alternative is therefore not left vs. right, or liberal vs. conservative, but rather: freedom vs. force (= liberty vs. coercion, autonomy vs. servitude).

    12) The sole moral requirement for any government of a society of men must therefore be to remove the use or threat of physical force from human interactions and guarantee thereby that all human interrelationships shall be entered into and conducted voluntarily. (= Rand's radical capitalism in which every individual retains his morally justified autonomy).

    13) A moral government must therefore guarantee that:

    No person shall initiate the use of physical force or threat thereof to take, withhold, damage or destroy any tangible or intangible value of another person who either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange, nor impede any other person's non-coercive actions.

    It is only in 8) that ownership arises as (at first) an individual moral imperative in order to pursue life consistent with one's nature. The political right to ownership of property is necessitated (in a social context) by the same moral imperative imposed by reality that men must be free to obey unimpeded.