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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Wednesday March 19 2014

imageIncoming from Sam Bowman in the form of an email, dated March 6th, entitled “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism - an apologia”:

Hey Brian,

Thanks for mentioning my Libertarian Home talk on Samizdata. I look forward to seeing you tonight if you can make it.

“Tonight” was March 6th (Simon Gibbs introductory spiel about Sam and his talk here), when Sam gave his talk at the Rose and Crown.  This is not yet available on video, but it presumably soon will be, because as always at these Libertarian Home Rose and Crown talks, a video camera was in action.  On the right is a photo that Sam took of me and him with his mobile, after he had given his talk.

And thanks for coming on Monday!

That was an ASI event, about whether prison works.  (Answer, with all kinds of reservations: yes.)

I typed out quite a long email to you but decided against it, because I figured none of it would be new to you.

Wrong.  Now that my hair is mostly grey and I no longer say everything I am thinking, other libertarians seem to assume that I now know everything that there is to be known, and because I own lots of books that I have read everything that there is to be read, about libertarianism.  None of this is true.  I do not read and have not read nearly as much as I have time to read and have had time to read.  I regret that Sam didn’t preserve this longer email.

Having said that, since it’s something we’re both interested in I thought I’d try to outline my position a bit more briefly:

Excellent.  I asked Sam, quite a long time ago now, if he minded me recycling what follows in a posting, and maybe then sticking bits of it up at Samizdata.  No, he said, post away.  So here it is:

I still hate the term ‘social justice’ (Hayek did a real number on me), and philosophically I’m not on board with the Rawlsian view of ethics. My moral position is preference utilitarianism – that people getting what they want is what’s good. Having said that, practically I think that ethical consequentialists and believers in ‘social justice’ are in basically the same position: both think that improving the welfare of the poor is a high priority.

I think it makes sense to treat libertarianism as being about means, not ends. Most political positions claim that they’re good because they will make people’s lives easier, happier, etc. (There are some exceptions of course.) I think many people make the error of forgetting that the world is complex, so they assume that differences of opinion about politics must be down to differences of opinion about what sort of world we want.

People sometimes also try to waterproof their beliefs by attaching moral claims to empirical arguments – eg, a supporter of the minimum wage, presented with strong arguments that undermine their empirical claims, may fall back on the argument that it’s just indecent for people to earn below £x/hour, and a decent society should simply not allow that, consequences be damned. Of course we libertarians often do this too – presented with strong arguments in favour of the minimum wage we may fall back on the claim that it’s just wrong to interfere with private contracts between adults. I think there’s some merit to both these claims (much more so the latter, obviously) but they shouldn’t be treated as unbreakable absolutes. If they were, were the earlier, empirical arguments just rhetoric?

So you can boil my position down to this: if I was convinced that free markets and a high degree of individual liberty were not the best way of allowing people to get what they want, I wouldn’t support them. My libertarianism/liberalism is entirely contingent on empirical beliefs I have about the world.

I make explicit the fact that I’d be relaxed about redistribution of wealth from rich to poor if I thought it led to good outcomes, and indeed I think the libertarian empirical case is much stronger on regulation of people’s lives (in the broadest sense) and commerce than it is on wealth redistribution.  I also think that it’s where we have the most original things to say.

How this makes me any different to people like Milton Friedman and FA Hayek I am not sure, given that both were also explicitly supportive of wealth/income redistribution. Of course, any consequentialist libertarian would have to concede that, at least in theory, they would be open to the idea of redistribution.

Best,

Sam

Some emails, rather like some comments, can have particular expressive merit.  Because people are relaxed rather than mounted self-consciously on their official high horses, so to speak, they often communicate in this more informal circumstance with particular eloquence.  So, my particular thanks to Sam for allowing me to publish this.  More of his many thoughts here, although you may have to scroll your way past a huge photo of Sam in front of a brick wall.  (Odd.  Did anyone else have this problem?) I recommend doing this.