A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Libertarianism and American Philosophy II

Why the politics all of a sudden? Aside from a long time interest, I will be doing an interview this Monday at 8 pm for John Shook's "Humanist Matters." John has great knowledge of American Philosophy (he runs pragmatism.org, edits Contemporary Pragmatism and has numerous books and articles), he is also a prominent atheist (e.g., The God Debates), and a prominent humanist. We have a lot to talk about, but an ongoing discussion we have had is whether my libertarian leanings are compatible with my other beliefs. As I said in the last post, I think it is possible to provide a grounding for libertarian ideas within the context of philosophers such as Peirce, James, Dewey, and Holt, and I think it is worth the effort to see where this leads. In this post, I want to talk about honesty regarding psychology, in relation to politics.

Each approach to philosophy, if it is doing things seriously, is primarily concerned with a certain variety of honesty. Old-school pragmatist philosophy and its descendents have a particular concern with honest treatments of experience and honesty regarding psychological claims in general. As I have argued elsewhere, the intellectual path towards radical behaviorism began when Peirce declared that "belief" and "habit" were the same thing. From that point on, a third party, observing you carefully could make a credible, scientific, claim about your beliefs, under exactly the same principles that allow careful investigators to make claims about anything else. If you want to argue that the observer is wrong, your argument must be about the evidence, not "introspective privilege."

Most libertarians believe that non-governmental action can succeed in many situations where we tend to think we need the government. (I'm not really interested here in whether this principle can be used to argue against all government.) This belief is usually justified with the argument that governments are bloated, corrupt, rely on force, and proliferate unintended consequences. However, I think there is a better way to argue for the small-government agenda that most libertarians share. If you start with American Philosophy, IMHO, the issue is not about whether the government can or cannot perform an action, or whether private industry is more efficient; rather, it is about honesty and transparency of intention. It is about A) allowing people to use their own resources to forward the world they believe in, B) not letting people pretend that they support things they do not, and C) not letting people pretend that they support something, when they really support forcing others to support something.**

Take, for example, the build up to the new health care program. Millions of people claimed they supported universal health care, i.e., words came out of their mouths claiming that they believed other people should not have to personally pay for their own health care, or should only have to pay a small part of the costs they incurred. A small number of those people really believed the words coming out of their collective mouths, and I have tremendous respect for those people. However, I think any reasonable observation of the majority of these peoples' behaviors would show that they were lying. What did those people do to help the people they thought should be helped? Did they help individuals-in-need cover unpaid bills? Did they donate to charitable hospitals or medical assistance charities? Generally not. Instead, the primary thing we learned about these people, by observing their habits, is that they believed in talking about helping others with medical problems.

I can think of several objections to this line of argument. Most of these objections would boil down to a single argument that these advocates did not just believe in talking about helping others, they also believed in forcing third parties to help others. Some, perhaps most, of the advocates were even quite willing to be in the group that was forced. But note how schizophrenic this is: They are are not willing to help voluntarily, but they would love to be forced to help?!? Yes, apparently. Apparently there is a large percentage of this country that is quite happy to have the government force them to support certain causes, but who would think it inappropriate to support those causes voluntarily. I can see an argument from convenience, but I think we are back to the topics touched upon tangentially in the prior post: There is a deep lack of faith both in ones own character and in the potential of others, and in the potential to improve those characters over time.

To be clear: Absolutely nothing about libertarianism, as I understand it, implies that we should, or should not, assist others. Libertarianism only implies that those who believe in assisting others should do so. Everyone, everywhere, as much as possible should have to, as the saying goes, "put your money where your mouth is", because if you are not willing to that, it is just talk. People who believe they should help others have habits that are oriented towards helping others, because beliefs and habits are the same thing. If you don't, you don't, and no amount of talking changes that.

But what about those who argue that "it's not fair"? Why should they have to do the right things in this case while others get to sit back and not chip in? Passing by my favorite retort about fairness, I think arguments that everyone should put in for the good of the group fundamentally miss the point. There is no lack of ways that your money could help other people. Why should someone be forced to help one group of people and not another? Why should everyone be forced to help in this particular manner? For that matter, why should we ever expect, or want, everyone to help in the same way? Barring a small number of sociopaths, and a small number of people perpetually stuck keeping up with the Joneses, humans are surprisingly charitable. Millions of Americans are in charitable organizations (e.g., over 1.2 million Rotary members), and huge amounts of money are donated to major charities every year (e.g., over $4.2 billion to the United Way).

If you add up all the small local charities around the country, and you include people who help their family and those in their immediate community, I think there is plenty of evidence that people are helpful to each other, and that it is fairly easy to get them to be generous. Many arguments about fairness, then, are not about balance or generosity, they boil down to arguments for enforced uniformity. Is it really not fair if you donate money to someone's healthcare, while another person donates money to college scholarships, a third person donates money to a wildlife restoration charity, and a fourth person spends time creating an exhibit on local history? What about the person who's career is charity? Who, for example, gets paid a fraction of their market value to provide legal representation to those in need? Is it horrible that they are not also donating to the cause you believe in?

As in the end of the last post, we are left with a question of faith in public discourse and educational processes. Perice argued that we could converge on the truth through an honest investigation of collective experience. Dewey had an undying faith in the power of education. Is the world better when we assist people in such-and-such way? Let some groups try, let other groups not try, let us all examine the results in an honest fashion. It is not a speedy process, but it is the most reliable. What we mustn't do is give into the corruption of the language and allow people to hide their beliefs behind mere words. A prime value of letting people do what they want with their things is that we can see those people for who they are, and only in that context can we have a conversation about who we want to be, and what we need to change to get there.


** Is the use of such force (e.g., mandatory taxes) necessarily wrong? Again, I think that is a tangential issue here. John Hendon pointed out in the last post's comment section that there is also an admirable way to get to Libertarianism fairly quickly on ethical grounds of non-violence (understood in very broad terms). I know several people who have gone that route. However, other people will want to know why we might think that such a position would lead to other positive ends. In particular, many people feel that we are justified in forcing others to conform to certain rules, when we have reason to think it will result in a better outcome for the to-be-forced-people, or even if it will create better results for third parties. In the current context, I think American Philosophy leads us to allow either approach, so long as we are honest in the process. That is, people who advocate using tax money to do X, should not be allowed to pretend that taxes are magical money of some sort. Instead, they should have to articulate clearly why they think accomplishing certain goals justifies the confiscation of people's money. In particular, these advocates should be forced to explain why their goals cannot be accomplished through the systems of voluntary contributions that we should assume as a default method of accomplishing social goals. Some people, in some circumstances, can make such explanations convincingly.


  1. nice artical great contant to be read in the entire artical got expand knowledge in this regarding feald to be apply in my antird thinking.
    Business Etiquette Service Provider

  2. Thank you for your sharing. I want to post quickly but I do not know the way. Your article helps me, thank you so much
    Anger Management Service Provider

  3. My issue with libertarianism often comes down to it's principle claim arising from a nebulousness regarding the line between what government ought to do. On one side, you have total control of the economy (say, on the left), and zero (say, on the right). VERY few people are in either camp. The modern western state is largely mixed, with the government doing more or less depending on context.

    So for some things, isn't government just a more practical way of getting specific things done, in terms of a simple way of allocating resources specific cases? For instance, we could all donate to different charities for things we (those of us in favor of them, of course) want all people to have access to like cleaning the streets, maintaining parks, or in your example of health care, providing health care to people who wouldn't be able to access it without subsidies or regulations.

    For other things, like bread, housing or jobs, the private market is pretty efficient in making those things reasonably accessible to those who have a general set of skills.

    As a long-time determinist and only more recent student of radical behaviorism, I am most interested in the issues of social structure and its functional relationship to individual response repertoires. Society is very unequal in terms of what behaviors get reinforced over an individual's lifetime, and thus there exists great inequity in satiation. To me, libertarianism seems to fundamentally rest upon a notion of free agency in the individual that is empirically non-existent. If one thinks of "freedom" or "liberty" as merely the extent to which an individual is in contact with contingencies that increase his repertoire of skills that allow him access to more reinforcers, this is going to be defined by the social system in which he lives. How we choose to design that system will determine what he comes in contact with. There are very clear consequences determined by the designs we choose. For instance, in the more free market health care system of last year, my family was not able to obtain insurance. Now we have health insurance. These are two very different outcomes.

    Just as a sort of side note: this brings up a fascinating issue: the extent to which "intuitions" (I say, because most people don't really understand the principles of operant conditioning), about behavior are embedded in political assumptions. I.e. the debate over whether certain government programs do or do not "create dependency".

  4. Oh, and of course thanks for the blog. Enjoying the posts!

  5. I don't find the idea that you could want to contribute to a federal healthcare program only if others do so, but not that you would want to pay for another person's medical bills on your own, schizophrenic. I think of it as a reasonable way to solve a commons dilemma-like problem.

    For me to pay for person X's medical bills might cost a lot. I could certainly help someone pay for their medical bills, but the amount might be pretty paltry and not enough to cover the entire bill. But I know that if everyone in my neighborhood chips in whenever one of us needs to have a medical procedure, then it's likely that no one is ever going to be caught out of pocket with a necessary procedure they can't afford. Of course, I don't want to pay into this system if I'm not sure that everyone else is going to pay out when I need it. I also don't want to feel like I'm getting screwed and paying significantly more than other people who get the same benefits (because, as Robert Frank argues in The Darwinian Economy, relative rank in terms of wealth is super important to our social species).

    The solution, to me, is to create a formal system with clear, enforced rules. The easiest way to do this, given the pre-existence of a large infrastructure that performs similar functions, is to co-opt the infrastructure and add one more set of functions to it. This is the rationale behind using government to create a healthcare system.

    I would also add that the federal healthcare program doesn't force people to use federal healthcare; it merely sets a baseline that the market can improve on. If people want to set up their own, more efficient option, then they can do so. I am a liberal, but I would be happy to see something like what happened to the U.S. postal service happen to federal healthcare--the market develops to the point that the consumer has numerous efficient, affordable choices that improve on the baseline service provided by the government.

  6. Alex,
    The current federal healthcare program is a bit of a red herring for this discussion. I think it is conceptually flawed, but that is a VERY different discussion. To address your other concerns...

    This is a distinction that I think both Pragmatists and Libertarians would make:

    1) I think that people who cannot afford it should still get treated for medical conditions.

    2) If everyone agrees to help equally with a cause, I am willing to help as well.

    There is tremendous evidence that at a state and national level, you can do incredible things just with #1. Polio was eradicated in this country because people who believed in supporting it put dimes in cards at restaurants. Each person gave, as you say a "pretty paltry" amount, and not everyone gave, and yet enough people actually believed in the cause that the money got the work done.

    It would be trivially easy to do the same thing with universal healthcare if the people who claimed to support it actually believed. Give. Give in proportion to the strength of your belief.

    Then realize that my last sentence was a tautology: Giving is necessarily in proportion to the strength of your belief. If you are not giving, you don't believe. Carefully observe what you give your resources for, time and money and all else, and only then will you know what causes you believe in.

    1. I appreciate your response, because I think it clarifies the issue for me a bit. If I want not just to have my money but someone else's money in the pot, then there's a sort of coercion involved. Both me and the other person have to agree that we are going to contribute.

      I still have a strong intuitive feeling, however, that this doesn't quite work. In theory, private insurance companies are just collections of people paying into a pool that then has enough to pay out to individuals who have serious health issues--yet practically, what ends up happening is insurance companies are driven by profit to skimp on benefits and hassle claimants. I think my liberal impulse is to say "we should make a rule against that!" or "let's make it accountable to the public!" but I'm not sure that is necessarily the solution. I just feel like if people really believe your proposition 1, why isn't there good, affordable healthcare widely available?

    2. Good points! There are people who get to the Libertarian position through a pure non-coercion doctrine. There were relevant comments on my previous post (here) That is not a bad way to go.

      As for private insurance... it is a business. In principle a non-profit could be set up more cheaply (and such things exist in lots of places, but tend not to be on as large a scale). It is really a bit of a different issue, but you could do a lot to fix health care AND many other things with better enforcement of contract law, and with rules encouraging plain language in contracts (the latter is present in some parts of our society, but is not nearly as systematic as it should be). If that happened, it would become easier to collect when you have a legit claim, and insurance rates would go up slightly.

      Alas, though, my claim is that people do not really believe, for exactly the reason you point out: It hasn't happened yet. Saying that you believe in helping people is cheap and easy, actual believe entails action, and that can be costly and hard... but there is, I think, virtue in that.