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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, April 16, 2021

TGIF: Should Libertarians Join Organizations?

A few weeks ago YouTube suggested that I watch a 1988 episode of William F. Buckley's PBS TV show, "Firing Line," featuring Ron Paul, who at the time was the Libertarian Party candidate for president. I had to chuckle right at the top when Buckley introduced Rep. Paul by striking an ironic pose: while "libertarians specialize in non-organization...," Buckley said, "to run for president of the United States, which Dr. Paul is doing on the Libertarian ticket, does require organization, to be sure uncoerced." (Emphasis added.) Buckley flashed his trademark impish smile while his guest remained silent looking bemused.

This wouldn't be worth mentioning except that I've heard people make similar comments over the years. I have no doubt that Buckley was trying to be funny. The tip-off is in his final words, "to be sure uncoerced." Buckley was too smart and too knowledgeable not to know that libertarians--and this includes free-market anarchists--have no principled objection to organizations per se. Uncoerced is indeed the key point.

Amazingly, not everyone seems to know this. Many times I've heard people wonder how libertarians could have a political party or any other organization for that matter. It is one thing to wonder about a libertarian party, but quite another to wonder about all organizations. Maybe some of the questioners were trying to score a cheap debating point, but I suspect that for others, sheer misunderstanding was at work, as if libertarians favored self-sufficiency and social isolation. (They don't.) At the least, it is a sign of insufficient thought.

Why did Buckley say, "libertarians specialize in non-organization"? Specialize? Please! One of thing that libertarians do specialize in is enthusiasm for markets as an essential part of a free society. Markets are filled with organizations, if by that term we mean purposeful associations. (With respect to F. A. Hayek, we can distinguish organizations from institutions, the word he reserved for spontaneous, bottom-up social and economic regularity with accompanying expectations.) The overall market order, which is highly complex, is such an emergent institution rather than a designed organization. It was not constructed with a single conscious purpose, but within it are countless organizations that one or more people created for specific purposes. That's what a firm, a co-op, and many other kinds of groups are. The unplanned order of the market, which is an arena for purposeful conduct that has no end explicit in itself, is full of planned associations. What libertarian would reject them in principle? We'd be a lot poorer and certainly no freer without them. Again, the standard is consent. Organizations can be good, and so individuals ought to be free to choose with whom they will associate and for what purposes.

What's said about the market is also true of society in general. Obviously, people form associations for all kinds of reasons, not just to make money through production and trade. Tocqueville noticed this on his visit to the young United States and reported on it in Democracy in America. Americans, he said, formed organizations whenever they wanted to accomplish things they couldn't do individually. To hear him tell it, Americans were organization-happy. In those days, keep in mind, they were in large measure radically and classically liberal in temperament, yet that did not stop them from doing things together whenever it suited. They understood that organizing per se infringed neither their liberty nor their integrity. No surprise there: human beings are social animals.

I don't mean to say that organizations pose no risk to people. Risks and temptations lurk everywhere. Leonard E. Read, founding president of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote a remarkable essay long ago titled "On that Day Began Lies," in which he pointed out that the danger of even private organizations lies in the temptation of individual members to believe that are not responsible for the acts of the group they participate in them--as though they could merge into a mass without personal accountability. Think of a mob, which is not typically thought of an organization but whose members act in concert toward a particular end. One can see how those members might distance themselves from their own actions by regarding the mob as an agent.

Read headed the essay with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

Read then asked: "Is it possible that there is something of a wholly destructive nature which has its source in councilmanic, or in group, or in committee-type action? Can this sort of thing generate lies that actually cause the loss of 'millions of human beings'?"

He noted that personal integrity and honesty are key to avoiding trouble and suggested that this will determine the moral quality of any group. He asked:

What makes persons in a mob behave as they do? What accounts for the distinction between these persons acting as responsible individuals and acting in association?

Perhaps it is this: These persons, when in mob association, and maybe at the instigation of a demented leader, remove the self-disciplines which guide them in individual action; thus the evil that is in each person is released, for there is some evil in all of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an abstraction which, without persons, is what the mob is.

The organization certainly seems to provide the temptation for members to distance themselves from "its" actions, even though the mob cannot act if no member acts. Mobs are not alone in this phenomenon. Read went on:

Persons advocate proposals in association that they would in no circumstance practice in individual action. Honest men, by any of the common standards of honesty, will, in a board or a committee, sponsor, for instance, legal thievery—that is, they will urge the use of the political means to exact the fruits of the labor of others for the purpose of benefiting themselves, their group, or their community.

As we can see, Read didn't mean political associations only. Private associations also can challenge less-than-conscientious members' integrity. In this connection, he had much to say about how majority rule and the call for group consensus can tempt people to shift personal responsibility to the disembodied group.

In sum, Read wrote:

It ought to be obvious that we as individuals stand responsible for our actions regardless of any wishes to the contrary, or irrespective of the devices we try to arrange to avoid personal responsibility....

How to stop lies? It is simply a matter of personal determination and a resolve to act and speak in strict accordance with one’s inner, personal dictate of what is right. And for each of us to see to it that no other man or set of men is given permission to represent us otherwise.

In other words, do not associate with a group that does or advocates things you as an individual would not do or advocate. Being outvoted does not get you off the hook.

Read touched on a related theme in "Conscience on the Battlefield," in which he argued that even soldiers are responsible for the actions they are commanded to perform, including killing.

The upshot is that people of character can avoid the dangers of association without avoiding associations entirely. A separate question is whether a libertarian political party is good idea, but that's not my concern here. My message is that nothing about the freedom philosophy rules out voluntary participation in a wide variety of organizations.

Friday, April 09, 2021

TGIF: The Fraught World of Second-Bests

When discussion turns to how to make government "better," however any particular person would conceive that condition, libertarians understand that we are in the fraught world of second-bests. In other words, because of the nature of the state, no solution that merely attempts to reform it will be or could be truly satisfying. The system will continue to feature exploitation, rent-seeking, public-choice and knowledge problems, and worse.

We have an example of this in a recent Soho Forum Debate in which political scientist Terry Moe of Stanford University and Gene Healy of the Cato Institute argued over whether Moe's proposal for federal legislative fast-tracking, which is intended to enable presidents to eliminate congressional obstruction, is a good idea. I think Healy, a long-time critic of "the cult of the presidency," won the debate, but that of course doesn't mean that leaving things as they are is a good idea. Healy would agree.

Moe would add a feature to how Washington does things. His constitutional amendment would empower presidents to put legislation on a fast track. Thus within, say, 90 days after introduction, both houses of Congress would have to vote up or down on the president's bill--no committees, no amendments, no filibuster. Legislation could still be handled the old-fashioned way. Members of Congress could introduce bills that would go through the committee process of both houses and would be subject to amendment. Presidents could still veto those bills. Any prevailing filibuster rules would apply. Moe would simply put another arrow in a president's quiver.

Why does Moe want to do this? (It's not unprecedented, as Moe acknowledges: Congress has legislated that trade bills can be fast-tracked in this manner.) Simply put, he thinks the federal government is failing the country and has been doing so for a long time. The system set up by the framers of the Constitution, he says, is obsolete: they were operating under far different conditions from today's, and it's long past the time for change. Specifically, the system has too many "veto points" at which legislation can be derailed, resulting in paralysis and a dire failure to address important matters. (He offers immigration reform as a prime example.) The system all but assures that nothing happens, Moe insists, and we simply can't go on this way any longer.

One can readily acknowledge that things are not good now without embracing Moe's or any other particular reform. After all, it's always possible to make thing worse. 

I guess if your priority is the passage of legislation--any legislation--Moe's proposal would be appealing. But who judges Congress merely by how many bills it passes? (Come to think of it, some newspapers apparently do.) Quality is more important than quantity. Different people will evaluate the difficulty in passing bills differently depending on what they think the government would do with a free hand.

For people who love individual liberty, the first thing to notice is that legislative obstacles are bad only if the likely legislation would reduce government power and expand government respect for freedom. Gridlock, however, is good (with qualifications below) whenever it blocks government interference with peaceful private conduct, whether "personal" or "economic." (I regard this distinction as pernicious. Economic liberty is personal liberty; making and spending money in pursuit of one's life projects are as personal as human activity can get. Dividing liberty into two spheres, an idea endorsed decades ago by the Supreme Court, has been catastrophic. The courts scrutinize limits on freedom of speech and religion far more stringently than they scrutinize limits on the use of property. See my What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.)

The reverse is also the case; libertarians would applaud fast-tracking for bills that would remove restrictions on liberty, but oppose it for liberty violations. The problem is that exclusively pro-liberty fast-tracking is not likely to be adopted by the powers that be. Since bad bills easily outnumber good ones, fast-tracking would be no welcome reform.

This might suggest that gridlock is the best we can hope for in the current world. I have tended to think that is the case, but I things aren't that simple. As Healy points out, the libertarian preference for gridlock must be tempered by the fact that stymied presidents can turn to executive orders to get what Congress refuses to given them. Recent presidents have done this often. So the situation looks bleak. Reformed or not, the government will produce violations of liberty most of the time.

To be sure, Healy scored direct points against Moe's amendment during the debate. For some matters the proposal terrifies him. For example, George W. Bush wanted a much broader authorization for the use of military force after 9/11 than Congress gave him. Had fast-track been the rule, Bush would probably have gotten his way because members of Congress would have been afraid to vote against him after the horrific attacks. Could the government's war record since the start of the century been worse as a result? Maybe.

On the other hand, Healy suggested that Moe's amendment might not change things all that much. With fast-track the houses of Congress could defeat a presidential bill, then introduce something similar in the traditional manner, allowing amendments, etc. It occurs to me that presidents hoping for legislative success might informally negotiate with members of Congress to arrive at a bill that has a good chance of being fast-tracked even through houses in the other party's hands. Thus fast-tracking might accomplish much less than Moe expects.

We should be surprised by none of this. That the state--an irredeemably flawed and predatory organization--cannot be satisfactorily reformed is unremarkable. Conceived in sin and conquest, the state is based on the principle that some people should be empowered to coerce other people simply for living their lives in peaceful yet disapproved ways. Thus the only true reform is abolition.

Friday, April 02, 2021

TGIF: Targeted Advertising Violates No Liberty

Last week I modestly attempted to show that no injustice takes place when A sells B the opportunity to pitch its product to C. This is the principle behind print, television, and radio advertising, and it is no different in the era of social networks like Facebook. In principle, the commercial act I've described is similar to many other commercial acts. Someone has a megaphone and rents it to someone else, who then uses it to convey product messages to others. Where's the objection?

But this does not dispose of the matter because many people are bothered that the social networks collect information about their members, which advertisers may buy in order to tailor and target their merchandising campaigns for maximum effect. The thing that bothers critics seems, certainly a first glance, to make a lot of sense for all concerned. A car company quite sensibly would want to make its pitch to people who have already shown an interest in buying a car. It could waste a lot of money trying to sell cars without that information. Advertising is always iffy, so anything that increases the chances of success, however small they remain, may be worthwhile. On the other hand, people who want to buy a car could well appreciate that car dealers are seeking to direct commercial messages to them, and some (though not necessarily all) people not looking for a new car could well be glad to be free of such advertising, which they might regard as a nuisance.

The point is that when advertisers acquire information about potential customers and narrow the pool, they benefit others besides themselves. We need not start off suspicious of such a practice. One thing markets do best is produce information, and generally speaking, access to consumer information is a good. 

Of course wanting and acquiring market research is nothing new. What's new is the sophistication of the tools in the information age. However, it is easy to overestimate the efficacy of those tools. We too easily think that the ability to acquire information is equivalent to the power to manipulate. That is wrong.

Before the information age, gathering market data was a more crude operation. When Chevrolet advertised on TV's "Bonanza" decades ago, General Motors had at least a rough idea about who was watching the western each week. The networks did research--does anyone remember the Nielsen survey?--and that information was available to advertisers. There was no point in trying to sell Chevys to 6-10-year-old children. I suspect most people were not bothered by such research, although principled opponents of the market surely were.

But today's advanced online marketing research bothers many people because of how it is gathered. It's understandable. When we visit websites and or use social networks, we leave electronic trails unless we undertake efforts to avoid doing so. Everything we do online expresses our preferences to some degree, subject to recording; for a long time we've been on notice that this is the case.

We are also on notice that for a price such information may be made available to people who want to sell us things. We are free, though it may not be costless, to avoid leaving trails by using web browsers that protect privacy, such as DuckDuckGo or Startpage. Also, users may eschew social media if they find their privacy options inadequate or nonexistent. Granted, reading user agreements and navigating the privacy settings can be perplexing, but the market addresses that problem through online experts who often advise lay people on how to protect their privacy on the social networks. We live in a world of trade-offs, and we try to choose the mix of costs and benefits that best suits us as individuals.

Most people understand the trade-offs and are willing to give up some information in return for the convenience and fun of online activities. But others are upset to the point where they want the government to regulate or even stop the social networks and other platforms. Advocates of liberty would have to object to government interference beyond redress for fraud and breach of contract. As a general matter, making data from market research available is not only unobjectionable but ought to be welcome.

Let's not forget that placing an online ad before a group of people is no guarantee they will click on it, and clicking on it is no guarantee that they will buy the product. Consumers are in control. Why do critics of the information age insist on portraying us as puppets?

To sum up, research and targeted advertising is generally good in a variety of ways. Advertisers can waste less money. Entrepreneurs can refine their estimates of which consumer needs have been overlooked. And consumers can minimize their exposure to annoying and irrelevant ads. People wishing to opt out can find ways. 

One downside to the preoccupation with research-based online advertising is that the real threat to privacy--the government--gets too little attention. In the morality play, social networks and advertisers are bad and government regulators are good. But we've long known how little government at all levels respects our privacy. Information-age technology has aggravated that situation by orders of magnitude, as Edward Snowden showed us some years ago. Yet Congress keeps reauthorizing the executive branch's authority to spy on us (and people abroad) with impunity. Something's wrong when this is of less concern than Amazon's ability to tell me that it has what I was looking for last week.

What's the bigger threat: a company that buys information we've given up in order to sell us things, or the state, which ultimately seeks to control us?