Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Libertarian idealism vs. Conservative pragmatism

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Even as a Libertarian, I have often been tempted by Conservatism. In light of long-term societal developments and recent U.S. events, the temptation is here again.

I am particularly troubled by two issues:

Firstly, freedom requires responsibility and the ability and discipline not to use it indiscriminately: There is a difference between “is allowed to” and “should”, as well as between “is allowed to” and “would benefit from”, even between “is allowed to” and “will not be harmed by”. For instance (not necessarily with a Conservative angle), it is a very bad idea to binge drink and gorge oneself on fast food on a daily basis—but both are perfectly legal in e.g. the U.S.

However, large swaths of the population are stupid, uninformed, short-sighted, and/or reckless, or might have other weaknesses* that make them do things that are not good for them when they have the freedom to do so. Giving the wrong persons too much freedom leads to negative consequences for them. Worse, there can be negative side-effects for others, including their children and the tax payers.**

*The list could be quite long, and much would be irrelevant to this text. For instance, more-or-less anyone can be driven to do something stupid in anger, e.g. throwing a coffee mug at a wall.

**To stick with drinking: Even someone who never drinks in the presence of the children might damage them through e.g. being unable to keep jobs or being restricted to poor jobs. Tax payers might e.g. be forced to foot the bill for various forms of government aid that would not have been necessary with a sober parent.

Libertarians usually work with the explicit or implicit premise that we are each capable and responsible enough to make good decisions for ourselves—or, failing that, that we should be free to decide as long as the negative consequences only or mostly hit ourselves. At the same time, most humans are idiots and consequences often extend to others (cf. footnote above).*

*Incidentally, almost all ideologies are naive and overly optimistic about human nature. Communism, e.g., even ethical concerns aside, would be extremely unlikely to ever work as intended. Conservatism might be a partial exception (cf. below).

Secondly, many of the norms, traditions, behaviors, whatnot that were present in the past, but are now considered antiquated, might actually have had considerable benefits to them—even when these benefits are not obvious to us. For instance, there are strong signs that the current world underlies a dysgenic pressure; for instance, it might well be that a more modern life style leads to less individual happiness. Similarly, it might be that several norms (etc.) worked when they were all present, but that removing one of them causes problems when the others are not adapted. Trial and error over many generations might have led to a set of norms that happened to work well, while our current norms are often the result of chance or thoughtlessness and might work less well. Consider by analogy an ecosystem where one species is suddenly exterminated (or a new one artificially introduced): chances are that the effects will be highly negative, even though there are functioning ecosystems elsewhere that never had this species. In due time, a new balance will be found, but it might take a long time and the damage might be considerable. Indeed, more literally, humans are likely to partially have evolved to fit into a particular set of norms, and turn out to be maladjusted when those change,* or, vice versa, some norms might have evolved to keep biology in check.

*For instance, a pet hypothesis of mine is that many parent–teen conflicts are rooted in a conflict between current norms and biology: Once it was normal to be considered an adult, build an own life, find a spouse and have children (especially, for the girls), and whatnot, as a teen. Currently, a first real job might have to wait until after college, spouse and children until after thirty, and a too independent teen might be grounded even at seventeen-and-a-half.

Similarly, it is conceivable that removing a ban* on pre-marital sex** or introducing TV*** (let along e.g. heroin) could have negative effects on society and/or the individuals involved. It might or might not be that these specific examples are problematic,*** but it is extremely likely that problems will be present somewhere among the very many changes that have taken place over comparatively short time spans.

*Or e.g. a strong societal or religious norm. To keep the discussion simple, I will mostly speak in terms of laws instead of norms, customs, whatnot. This should not be seen as more than a convenience, however, and Conservatism is not just a matter of laws and public policy.

**To deliberately take an example of something considered perfectly normal by most modern Westerners, but which has been seen very differently at other times. Note that I do not call for the re-introduction of such a ban (nor for the abolition of TV).

***TV is given as an easily understood example of something that has brought large changes but might just as easily be underestimated. I am not implying that anti-TV sentiments would be common among Conservatives. If they are, I am not aware of it.

***Both definitely have brought great changes, but whether the net effect was positive or negative would have to be investigated in more detail. My personal strong suspicion, however, is that they have both been negative for society, while, when we look at direct effects, being positive for the individuals. I am highly uncertain about the net effect on the individuals when we factor in indirect effects.

Conservatism, however, to some degree amounts to “sticking with the true-and-tested”, to assume that a society that worked* did not need fixing, and that changes should be gradual and controlled—all of which would help in avoiding such problems.

*Which is not to say that a working society was a perfect society, or necessarily a good one. I would, on the contrary, strongly caution against building an idealized image of “yore”, even changes brought by scientific and economic progress aside. By analogy, being an animal in an ecosystem is not necessarily a great life, but, by-and-large, a stable and only gradually changing ecosystem is preferable to one which is severely disrupted.

For someone with a Libertarian heart, these problems raise very unpleasant questions, for instance when and whether the idea of a “bubble of rights” needs to consider indirect negative effects on others and when and whether the damage* to the public might be large enough to warrant restrictions on individual rights on a “necessary evil” basis. Looking at the current, disastrous U.S. developments, e.g., it is clear that many simple cannot or will not handle freedom responsibly. Chances are that Conservatism is pragmatically sounder than Libertarianism, and it often seems to me that a (not very realistic) world in which legislation is Libertarian and behavior voluntarily Conservative would be the best option.**

*A word chosen to differentiate from more generic claims about “the interests of the many”, “the greater good”, and similar. Here there is a very dangerous slippery slope, which could lead past Conservatism into Leftist politics, and which makes it necessary to tread very carefully.

**E.g. in that there is a right to pre-marital sex but that few make use of it.

A potential, if imperfect, way out is to treat areas like majority* in a more discriminating** and individualized manner: Instead of having everyone reach certain rights in a blanket manner at certain ages, some set of more relevant criteria (cf. below) could be used to determine whether any specific individual should be given the corresponding rights. It might then be that someone highly intelligent, well informed, and mature is allowed to do things that the metaphorical*** high-school drop-out is not allowed to do—or is allowed to do them earlier than the high-school drop-out. (Note that most, if not all, objections that could be raised on a “personal freedom” basis apply similarly to the current age based restrictions.) We might then have a Libertarian ideal for those who can handle it and Conservative pragmatism for those who can not.

*In the sense used in “age of majority” and with the “like” intending to include all the various “age of X”, e.g. “age of drinking”, “age of driving”.

**In its correct sense.

***Any given real high-school drop-out could still be highly intelligent, well informed, and mature—rare, true, but not impossible.

As an aside, this type of discrimination should not be limited to e.g. maturity according to current standards or to resolve a Conservative–Libertarian conflict. It should also include an increased freedom from e.g. more Leftist government interventionism, say that someone who fulfills certain criteria will be allowed to make his own decisions concerning health insurance, pension savings, and similar—no matter what restricting laws do or do not apply to others.

As to what criteria should be used, this is a tricky question and might involve different answers for different rights. A first suggestion would be to use some combination of I.Q. (or a similar score) and age, e.g. (!) that most* rights currently given at eighteen are awarded when min(I.Q., 130) + 3 x min(age, 30) >= 184. This would e.g. imply that someone with an I.Q. at or above 130 would receive them at eighteen, like today; someone with an I.Q. of 94 would do so at thirty, having had another dozen years to build knowledge and maturity; those in between would do so at an age varying linearly between eighteen and thirty; and those below 94 would never** do so.

*Off topic, I suspect that staggering the flow of rights more than today would be a good idea, so that the individual can learn to handle the rights and the responsibility gradually, instead of being hit with most of it in one go and with little preparation. To keep the main text reasonably simple, I have not made attempts to bring in such a staggering in the main text or the specific example.

**The specific number 94 arose as a side-effect of using a high-I.Q. of 130, a low-age of eighteen, and a high-age of thirty; and I am very open to discuss other values. However, I do note that someone with an even lower an I.Q. is horrifyingly limited. Chances are that no amount of time will be enough to catch up with an eighteen-year-old with an I.Q. in excess of 130, let alone a thirty-year-old with such an I.Q.

In specific cases, other values/criteria in the formula and/or various exceptions might apply. For instance, the right to marry might reasonably involve some type of “success in life” measure, e.g. that a steady income has been present for some time, and might have a laxer I.Q.* criterion. If (!) a “no sex before marriage” principle was re-introduced, it might take the form that pre-marital sex is allowed for those with a high enough score, while “intra-marital” sex always is allowed.

*That no-one with an I.Q. below 94 was allowed to marry would, if nothing else, reduce the chances that this scheme gains acceptance from “small” to “zero”.

Formal tests of more specific abilities or knowledge are possible criteria, but must be applied with great caution, lest they be deliberately abused for nefarious agendas* or have accidental negative effects through oversights, subjectiveness, or incompetence**. Counting e.g. years of formal education is out: it might once have been plausible, but with the current degree inflation, the disputable value of formal (as opposed to self-) education, and the outright poor decision that higher formal education can be in e.g. the current U.S., it would do more harm than good. It might also kill the remaining credibility of the education system if too many strive for an easy degree for the specific purpose of gaining a higher score.

*E.g. to ensure that only those with the “correct” political opinions are allowed to vote in public elections.

**A good example is fiddling with various aptitude tests to remove differences in group outcomes without considering the possibility that these reflect differences in ability distributions between groups.

Excursion on practical problems:
Above, I have deliberate ignored practical problems, like when and how testing is done, how many re-rests might be allowed, how to ensure that test results are not made pointless by cheating, … They are not very interesting at the current level of abstraction, but must be very carefully investigated and considered if an implementation is ever attempted.

Excursion on culture clashes, etc.:
The complications of the “Secondly” above could apply in other situations, too, including culture clashes. There is a risk that biological adaptations to one system of norms might become maladaptations when the individual is moved to a society with a different set of norms.

Excursion on rule breaking and rules as a baseline of behavior:
A complication with any set of rules is that at least some will break them, including some who merely aim to demonstrate their disregard for the rules, “act cool”, be rebellious, whatnot. To the latter, the exact rules broken might not matter much; and even other rule-breakers might be directed more by the amount of “breakage” than the eventual behavior. For instance, if a speed-limit of 50 (in some unit) results in some traveling at a speed of 60, then raising the speed-limit to 60 will not cause everyone to now drive legally. More likely, 60 will be seen as the new baseline and some will now drive at a speed of 70. A child testing boundaries will not be content if a given boundary falls, when it can just proceed to test the next boundary. Avant-garde painters of one generation might seem like conventional bores to the next generation, who is set on pushing the envelope further. Etc. Correspondingly, pragmatically speaking, it can pay to have some amount of buffer in the rules—a point where a highly laissez-faire philosophy will fail.

Similarly, a too great laxness in one area can lead to problems in another. For instance, if school children learn that they can get away with almost anything without consequences at home, they might assume the same about school and behave accordingly. If they do get away with almost anything at school, they might take this lesson into the streets. Etc.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm

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