Friday, February 01, 2008

Skepticism and Freedom will not save libertarianism

John, in comments of the previous post, write:
... skepticism is really a bedrock principle of serious libertarian scholarship. A good suggestion would be to get out of the sandbox and read Richard Epstein's "Skepticism and Freedom."

The positivist, pragmatist, consequentialist, law and economics libertarians such as Posner, Epstein, the Friedmans, etc. have a good, flexible model of economics of legal issues. But the problem is the empirical content needed to make decisions (see Epstein quote below.) As soon as you claim to know the empirical content needed, you can be doubted on Hayekian grounds. Those guys substitute their personal authority for the kind of detailed and dispersed information that Hayek attributes to the market. They might as well be setting prices based on their personal authority. Legislative solutions might not be as good as markets, but they probably aggregate information better than these individual authorities.

What I really liked in Epstein's "Skepticism and Freedom" was this bit:
When you are young in this world, you believe that the class of deductive truths about social matters is larger than it turns out to be. The great attraction of libertarian thought lay in its deductive power. The hope was that you could axiomatize the system and sort of render social problems amenable to a set of principles that yielded necessary or deductive truths. That vision certainly fired my early academic life... Essentially, as I have gotten older and maybe a little bit wiser -- which why that 30 years really start to matter -- I have discovered, to my infinite regret, that most of the serious debates over the basic principles of any political order have an irreducible empirical content.

In that one short paragraph, he invalidates most libertarian writings, including quite a lot of his own.


john said...

Interesting... the "paragraph" you attribute to Epstein cannot actually be found anywhere in his book "Skepticism & Freedom." It is a couple of snippets weaved together from a speech Epstein gave to AEI in 2002 -- a point I make only to undermine your dishonest suggestion that you have actually read (or even perused) the book itself, a deception you apparently perpetuated over at Brad DeLong and David Freidman's blogs as well. How imaginative. It might also explain why one of the commentators was totally befuddled as to what in the hell you were talking about.

After the blood rushes out of your face, read the speech and you might notice that ellipsis free and in the context of the discussion, Epstein is discussing his (well known) ideological transition from more natural-rights based justifications for a classical liberal social order to one grounded in utilitarianism.

As for your comments preceding that, I honestly can't make any sense of them. You obviously don't know what Epstein is discussing when he speaks of "empirical content" (as we've already seen), and I don't know what hidden meaning lies behind the assertion that "those guys want to substitute their personal authority" for market-driven preference satisfaction. There must be something I'm missing, because I really don't think that you are so unfamiliar with the libertarian worldview that you are unaware that one of it's fundamental precepts (at least as it applies to routine market transactions) is that individuals themselves are generally in the best position to make their own judgments on the relative values of what is received relative to what is sacrificed. It is a "skepticism" that outside third parties have the omniscence or competence to effectively coordinate collective preferences that provides a fundamental justification for market-driven resource allocation -- and also undermines the logic behind most of the "social welfare" systems to we've to which we've grown so accustomed.

Mike Huben said...

John, what you are arguing about is an ambiguity between the article "Skepticism and Freedom" and the book of the same title, both by the same author. The article is a capsule description of the book.

You wrote about the book. I wrote about the article. No deception involved. I also have a copy of the book here, for reference. Do you have some reason to think Epstein's summary of his book has a different message than his book itself?

I'm not surprised you "can't make sense of them": you can't even be specific enough to say what "them" is.

But the main thing I'm referring to above is Epstein's law and economics ideas, such as "Simple Rules". Disguising libertarian ideology as guidelines for legal rules and rulings ignores empirical content. Thus we should be skeptical of Epstein for Hayekian reasons: guideline makers and guideline followers are not using specific, local information.

With Epstein, "bedrock" skepticism is employed only where it supports his case.

So considering that my Hayekian point is exactly what you wrote in your last paragraph, it seems that I DO know what Epstein's discussing.

And finally, you seem to have ignored my earlier point that the entire lot of natural rights libertarians, including Nozick, are obviously not applying "bedrock" skepticism.

john said...

Mike, there is no "article" entitled "Skepticism & Freedom." The quotation you cite is lifted from a speech Epstein gave to AEI about the book. I can only speculate as to where you acquired it, but we know for certain that you didn't glean it from reading either his book or the speech, since 512 words fill the gap substituted by an ellipsis and coincidentally, the exact same snippet can be found elsewhere. In any case, I really would consider this to be a frivolous issue, were it not for the pretention you make to be familiar with the scholarship and writings of those you purport to rebut. Which leads me to my more general point...

In lieu of making a specific argument, I've noticed your penchant for pulling some random quote out of the air (often one you acquired from some "libertarian") and citing it as some broad refutation of the libertarian side of whatever issue is presently under discussion. This Epstein "quote" is a perfect example. You don't appear to know what Epstein is referring to when he uses terms like "irreducible empirical content," even though he discusses it at length. Instead, you flatly allege that libertarians like Epstein, when setting forth certain legal proscriptions, "ignore empirical content," and supposedly undermine their own argument when they defer to "empirical content." All this without even knowing or addressing what Epstein means by empricism, articulating a preferred standard of empricism, explain why the content upon which Epstein relies is not "empirical," why yours is, and so on and so forth. It's not that I’m exactly trying to FORCE an argument out of you, its just that I don’t know what your argument is...

It also might explain my puzzlement over your contention that "we should be skeptical of Epstein for Hayekian reasons: libertarian ideology as guideline makers and guideline followers are not using specific, local information." I can't know specifically what "local information" you are making reference to, so we may be talking past each other. As i stated in my original note, the consistent running theme of Epstein’s justification for a minimalist state -- as it applies to market transactions, anyway -- is predominantly Hayekian: Market actors are in possession of the best information available as to their preferences, desires, and tastes, and the legal rules should be structured so as to maximize their ability to collectively satisfy those preferences through strong systems of private property and voluntary exchange. However, Epstein significantly parts ways with Hayek (and Oliver Wendell Holmes) in according blanket deference to Hayek’s conception of “spontaneous order” as a guiding principle for legal theory. So no, I’m not convinced that you know what Epstein is discussing.

Finally, I don’t address your “point” about natural right libertarian theorists because I don’t find deontological justifications for libertarianism to be very persuasive. By the same token, I find the nearly ubiquitous appeals to “social justice” and its variants on the left to be equally unpersuasive. Do you concur?

Anonymous said...

Even Nozick grew up eventually. Apparently he was a late bloomer, though.

"In 'The Examined Life' Nozick briefly indicates that he has given up some of his earlier views, and he makes some suggestions about a just scheme of inheritance taxation. As Nozick there says, now he is no longer a libertarian." [Wolff, Jonathon-91, page 156].

I'd be curious, John.

Would you be in favor of a Basic Income Guarantee or Guaranteed Minimum Income for all citizens?

Milton Freidman, (playing semantic games similar to your own) proposed it before as a Negative Income Tax. Bush's rebate is essentially the same thing, but de minimus. If not, on what grounds do you oppose it?

john said...

Yes bosch, I would support a policy that gave me a "guaranteed minimum income" of $10,000,000.00 per year.

But in my less glib moments (and to answer your question bosch), I would say no -- at least if the "Basic Income Guarantee" or "Guaranteed Minimum Income" is "guaranteed" only through the compulsory redistribution of wealth by government entities. The role of the government should not be to redistribute wealth as a means for ensuring that a person's income over some period of time does not fall below a "floor." The incentive effects tend to be perverse, especially when combined with the inability of government entities to effectivel alter or modify its behavior in response to the deleterious impact of their "charitable" forrays.

That said, to the extent that the body politic cannot help itself (which it cant - not today anyway), I'd prefer to (1) remove the federal government from the equation entirely, and limit any such functions to state and local governments that are in the best position to make indpendent judgements about how to run their welfare systems; and/or (2) substitute all the redistributive schemes out there (such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, AFDC, etc.) with an annual cash grant to every citizen. Charles Murray recently proposed this in his book, "In Our Hands." I don't find it ideal, but certainly preferable to the status quo.

Anonymous said...

That's odd, John. I thought you were a Hayekian and he first proposed it in RTS in 1944 and never waivered from his advocacy of it. Maybe you should read more after you take some remedial reading lessons. Try Mike's site.

Anonymous said...

I'd prefer to (1) remove the federal government from the equation entirely, and limit any such functions to state and local governments that are in the best position to make indpendent judgements about how to run their welfare systems; and/or (2) substitute all the redistributive schemes out there (such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, AFDC, etc.) with an annual cash grant to every citizen. Charles Murray recently proposed this in his book, "In Our Hands." I don't find it ideal, but certainly preferable to the status quo.

Pauliac. Paulsie. Pathetic.

john said...

Bosch, for someone with such magnificent remedial reading skills, I'm curious to know what I've written thus far that allowed you to conclude that you thought I was a "Hayekian as he first proposed it in RTS in 1944."

Though you don't specify, it is reasonably obvious that you're referring to Hayek's concession to a certain minimum level of state sanctioned welfare rights. Alot of libertarians have problems with Hayek on this score, and since it was Epstein who inspired this thread in the first place, I would refer you to his law review article, "Hayekian Socialism" - which is one of the better critiques of Hayek's willingness to defer to government intervention. Unfortunately, the whole thing cannot be found online, but a couple of good excerpts can be found here and here.

In a nutshell, Hayek was was so consumed with the limitations of human knowledge and, hence, deferential to the "spontaneous" generation of a social order, that he was simply too prepared to accept a bloated role for government in the marketplace - be it in the provision of minimum welfare rights, health, old-age, unemployment or disaster insurance. Even if Hayek had an appreciation for their deleterious effects, he was still willing to concede to them in light of his near mystical deference to spontaneous order - which certainly made him a trenchant and powerful critic of central planning, but who nonetheless came up short in articulating a complete vision of a political, legal, or Constitutional order.

As to your other post, how shall i respond? Please tell me that someone is actually capable of substantively addressing anything I say? As I've said before, I appreciate a good jibe, a good insult, a good attack on my credibility, coherence, or intellect - but you sophomores have to actually put something in between the insults for them to carry any weight.