Libertarianism is Great, a priori


Long conversation last night with a “classical liberal / libertarian.” It strikes me how much classical liberalism is argued a priori.

Locke’s social contract seems like a fine way to conceptualize the state in society, a priori. A bunch of abstract pre-civilizational humans come together and make some agreements about how to live together. The trouble comes in when you notice it’s not just ahistorical, but it doesn’t at all describe the relationships people have with the state and society, as we observe them empirically.

So, in Lockean tradition, it seems that the guy I'm talking to attempts to understand different political worldviews as different ways of answering what the gang of abstract pre-civilizational humans above ought to do. I suggest that they hold resources in common and allocate what must be allocated according to need. And he's very concerned about people overstating their needs, and about impropriety on the part of those doing administration.

What I'm saying is that libertarians conceive of political theory as something that can be reasoned out a priori, like mathematics, and then applied to reality post hoc. We contrast this with Marxism, which sees political theory as a process of analyzing reality and finding the points of tension, the contradictions, which we expect to drive the process of politics.

This explains the inability to really grapple with inequality. The problem of inequality is always an afterthought, the encroachment of reality on a pure, abstract, a priori theory of economic ethics.

When confronted with the question, I think the interesting response is “inequality is the state’s fault.” I don’t think it’s a strong argument historically, but at least it admits that there’s a problem.

Last night it was “poverty’s not that bad, and besides, extreme poverty is declining.” The first part I, uh, don’t find terribly compelling. But this second claim, that extreme poverty around the globe is in decline, is an interesting one, and warrants further discussion. I think it gets at the split between social science and economics as disciplines broadly.

The economist says that the purchasing power of the poorest of the poor is going up.

The social scientist points out that the process by which this has happened has involved mass displacement into cities and into more precarious living situations, the transition from family business to factory labor (which creates social alienation, isolation, and juvenile delinquency), business-backed violence in Mexico and Colombia... in short, poverty is numerically lessened but empirically aggravated.

I think the split between social science departments and economics departments has something to do with the fact that the former actually listen to what the poor have to say about their situation. Social scientists are concerned with empirical reality. They are interested in doing political ethics a posteriori.

This also gets at a concept that Ivan Illich mentions in Deschooling Society, which is the modernization of poverty. His definition has to do with education, buy I take it to be the idea that “development” makes life more unpleasant given a constant purchasing power. I find this idea compelling and would like to read more about it.