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It would be very difficult to make a convincing case that the world of 2011 is horrible by any reasonable standard. We are richer, healthier, and wiser. Beyond that, there are a lot more people who get to enjoy living today than at any time in the past. This must count for something.

With that as a backdrop, I’ve been reflecting on the rigidity of political views a lot lately. Readers know that I would much prefer a world of smaller and more limited government, a world with greater property protection and a world where special privileges were eliminated. I honestly do not believe I will live to see that happen, on whatever metric we want to define small and limited. At the same time, I am incredibly outnumbered by those who would want to see an expansion of state power, and a reduction in private property and an expansion of the granting of special privileges.

Neither group seems happy, never seemed to be happy nor seems to have prospects for future happiness. There are two reasons for the unhappiness in my view. One is moral and the other consequential. For those with similar inclinations as myself, small government is a moral imperative because the existence of coercive power threatens the foundations of civil society in the many ways that Hayek describes here.  Opponents see coercive power as a moral imperative as well — as a way to move in the direction of a more just world. I am not sure these valleys can ever be bridged. The second and consequential reason for the disagreement is that each side seems to think that the world will be richer, safer and more enjoyable if their preferred vision is implemented. Now here the evidence seems to squarely support freedom over bondage as a means to better ends. This is not why I support freedom, but it’s world thinking more about. I am incredibly pessimistic about the world at times because I do not think many people (publicly) are reasonable people. And here is what I mean.

  1. For folks like me, one may interpret my preference to live in a min-archy or something resembling it. I would like it. I would prefer it. But what I would like to see is recognition by minarchists, anarchists, libertarians, classical liberals, etc. that such a world is unlikely to be perfect, and certainly no nirvana. Why? We’ll explore that in future posts.
  2. Similarly, one may interpret the modern progressive supporter of powerful government as wanting the benign influence of an elite corps of professionals to be involved in every aspect of our lives. This may obviously have some possibility for making improvements, but I would like to see a greater recognition that this constructed society is very unlikely to deliver the nirvana that proponents claim.
  3. The above two points can be summarized as saying that neither the progressive nor liberal vision if enacted would produce nirvana, and each side ought to recognize that. My defense of a free society does not depend on it being the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’d like to see non-delusional progressives recognize this about their world view.
  4. We are talking about margins here. What will happen if we move in the direction of a little more freedom or a little less freedom? I am willing to concede that for marginal moves away from freedom, my life and the life of others is not likely to become considerably or noticeably damaged. One reason for this optimism is that I think there is another horse in the race that we are all forgetting about. The innovators, creators, producers, and entrepreneurs are still doing their thing. And if they do their thing better and faster, it is very possible for me to live a flourishing and enjoyable life even as the state encroaches. The second reason is that I increasingly am able to distance myself from the reach of the state – thinking seriously about the possible influence of the state would leave one to conclude that its expanse would have to be extremely dramatic in order for me to not be able to extricate myself from some of its most objectionable aspects. I know dystopia is a possibility, but I am less inclined today to believe in permanently slippery slopes than I was in the past. So while I fight like crazy against state expansion on a whole host of grounds, I am certainly willing to allow that a little more state intrusion is not likely to end my life as I know it.
  5. Are there progressives who would publicly be willing to make a similar accession? Do they really believe that incremental moves toward greater freedom, property rights and personal responsibility will send the world into a death spiral? Empirically this is impossible to support. Morally perhaps as well. But if the point of civil political discourse was to get to some common understanding, then I believe that it is necessary for the progressives to recognize this. The goings’ on in Wisconsin are illustrative here.

In short, incremental moves in the direction of more or less freedom are unlikely to make the world intolerable to live in for people opposed to such moves. Recognizing this does not require an accession that this is what should be done. But acceding this point is, in my view, essential for civilized political discourse. Now, does this mean that I don’t want to live in a free world? Of course not. Does it mean that I am selling out? Of course not. But what it does mean is that I am operating in an environmental where I would like to see better discourse across competing world-views, and allowing for the possibility that other people with different views not only do not wish to destroy the world but that those views, if implemented, would have a hard time destroying the world, will increase our ability to work on problems to achieve more of what we both want.

That said, I do believe that a free-society is the only moral one – so I do not cherish freedom on consequentialist grounds. And I believe there is an irreconcilable difference on moral grounds between those who favor freedom versus those who favor unfreedom. Despite the rhetoric of positive rights, the progressive view is not to be mistaken with freedom, appropriately understood. But this does not close off my willingness to live in a morally less appealing world, and the same should be applied to the progressives as well.

One Response to “We Do Not Live in a World of (Publicly) Reasonable People”

  1. Roger says:

    This is becoming one of my favorite web sites. Always insightful and thought provoking.

    I would like to suggest a way out the dilemma you face considering the apparent future direction of the world. It is, simply, that we do not have to face one uniform fate. The world is composed of many people, many institutions, many states, and each of these is going to experiment (whether intended or not) in realizing the future. Some are going to be more successful than others, and some are going to fail catastrophically. However, as long as we do not pursue one path, we will have various outcomes. If the recipe you suggest works out — in some places, some of the time — it can spread and multiply to others.

    This gets to some important points. First, we need to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. This is of course exactly what the top down centralized view of the “progressives” encourages, and is perhaps the major reason it is so dangerous. It intentionally cuts off competing experiments.

    It also reveals the way out of the problem; we need to pursue divided destinies. This can be accomplished in many ways, for example, we can establish new states, or achieve freedom in specific locations. Another idea is the “opt out.” I believe we should allow progressives to pursue their folly and instead push for growing incremental freedoms to opt out. This could start with such simple things as the ability to choose Social security benefits — do you want to start at age 75 at this rate or at the current age at this different rate. It could grow in rights to opt out of a program all together

    The progressive program has always depended upon funding progressive values and ideas with non-progressive’s money. We need to quit fighting them and instead lobby for the freedom to not participate in — or fund — their experiment. If government services can claim a right to forcing me to pay taxes for their government monopoly, I think we should push for the “right” to opt out — to not pay, and not play, in their game. Once we begin to establish the concept — once we get a small trickle of freedom to opt out of big government coercive solutions — we can use that to leverage a larger and larger escape valve. Once the progressives and the free riders have to pay their own way, their system quickly implodes. Every reasonable person will make a mad dash for the exits that the true liberals constructed.

    Will opt outs work? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I do think the path is worth considering, and it takes the moral high road of lobbying for freedom rather than being against the manufactured freedoms of the progressives.

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