Monday, August 16, 2010

Freedom and coercion

Crooked Timber often affords a rich lode of material illustrating the state of the contemporary left, the latest example being a post and comment thread ostensibly about the non-existence or at least unattractiveness of libertarian utopias. It quickly spun off another thread, though, on the non-existence of the voluntary or of free choice and the ubiquity of coercion, and I've joined in repeatedly.

Now, it's easy enough to see why those with an interest themselves in coercing would like to deny the voluntary -- if everything is "coercive" then all that matters is that my coercion triumphs, and I no longer have to worry about justifying it. But it's interesting to witness how this operates like a kind of intellectual quicksand, pulling those who use it into increasingly extreme claims that eventually threaten to drown their own moral/political position. So, for example, it's not enough just to assert that people in conditions of great duress are so constrained in their options that they're effectively coerced (e.g., everybody except Jack Benny understands that "Your money or your life" isn't a real choice), because everybody also recognizes that such constrained conditions are rare. In order, then, to extend the operation of your counter-coercion, so to speak, you have to start arguing that the bad coercion is everywhere, from "norm-enforcement", to advertising and propaganda, to "rhetoric, speech, persuasion, marketing, influence, charisma, and so forth" (this last was overtly conceded not to be coercion per se, but supposedly enough like coercion to pose a problem for those who would like to uphold the voluntary as a social/political goal, e.g., libertarians). But this of course, by undercutting the whole notion of free choice or free will, threatens to undermine the moral foundations of political choice and action as well. One commenter (John Protevi), seeing this danger, attempted to dodge it by avoiding dealing with the individual level at all, instead looking only "below", to neurological processes, and "above", to the impersonal machinations of collective entities -- but this then leaves you with no good-faith way of speaking about an individual's moral/political responsibility at all. It should be a sign you've sunk too far when you find that your picture of the world consists only of neural robots, on the one hand, and "emergent" entities of vast size and power, on the other.

As I said toward the end of the thread, "I think that olde problem of free-will resurfaces again and again, no matter how quickly you try to change the subject." And my last comment was this:
1) Science won’t ever get us out of the free-will/determinism dilemma, because of what we are and how we’re situated in the world—the only way out is to hold onto both. This approach actually has a name—compatibilism—and it involves the recognition that we have, and need to have, two distinct stances in regard to our experience and behavior.
2) Trying to mix those stances, as when we try to use science to draw moral/political conclusions, leads us not just into confusion, but into error, both moral and empirical.
Which was maybe a bit too brief -- this post on another blog from some years ago expands it a little better.


  1. No, you don't quite understand the CT dynamic. Quiggen's hardly a leftist--he supports the Austrian school at times anyway (or was it Uni. of Chicago). CT's just the usual frat boy irony and kicks--essentially corporate/moderate with a few token liberal-PC points.

    And one can believe that something like free will holds (intention, deliberation, rational choice, etc), though perhaps coerced to some degree at times, economically speaking, without agreeing to vegas-style libertarianism. The metaphysical issues should be considered separate from the political (or one assumes so..something like compatibilism... for sake of discussion).

    Then, libertarianism is an all or nothing deal. We might respect a few of the libertarians' view on civil liberties. The US Constitution has some redeeming qualities (at least in comparison with the little Red book). And "liberals" even the modern Pelosicrat sort are hardly all collectivists. The US Demos support legalized gambling usually, for one--a traditional libertarian position. They have supported de-reg of various sorts as well.

    In other words, the CT gang may appear like the voice of liberal reason, but really it's the voice of academic, centrist prudence. Quiggen et al don't discuss say labor issues (tho an electician union--quite understandable--.ain't the same as a janitor's union...or cops, etc), or real solutions for ending extreme income disparity or outrageous exec. salaries. At times one or two bring up Rawls, or hint at...marxist themes, but it's fairly tame. I wager they're more comfortable with Nozicktopia--or the usual Keynesian macro-jive-- than Rawlsville (and that appears to be case for Metamorf as well).

  2. correctio: Then, libertarianism is NOT an all or nothing deal.

  3. Thanks for the comment J. I certainly agree that "libertarianism" isn't an all or nothing deal, and in fact I get a bit impatient with some of the standard hobby-horses of the self-described libertarians -- e.g., legalized gambling, drugs, prostitution, etc. Not because I'm necessarily against such legalizations, but because a) the issues are typically more complicated than they allow, and b) these aren't the primary sources of problems anyway, in the way the overall size and weight of government is. I'm still looking for a better label -- e.g., classical liberal, neoliberal, or, the latest, "neo-progressive" (see the neo-progressive narrative link on the upper right).

    As for Crooked Timber and its place on the political spectrum, I guess it's all relative, as Einstein didn't say. From the perspective of a living Marxist (which once I was, or was close to), they must look right-wing, but from mine now they tend to be uniformly on the liberal-to-left side of most polities, and hence useful as indicators.

  4. I find the interplay of the economists and the philosophy types on CT slightly interesting. Economists generally avoid the ethics chat (or Osiris forbid, metaphysics)--with some justification. For one, values are not really quantifiable. And economics, at least of the usual college-town sort, starts with Adam Smith, one of Davey Hume's cronies--Hume himself was an economist of a sort. Per Humean criteria, values/ethics/morality should be considered about equivalent to, say, one's taste in wines, women and song (the ought-is classic).

    That may be sort of obvious, but I believe most econo-types, if pressed, would agree with Hume's skepticism--or subjective hedonism, in a sense-- in regard to values--which on a macro level easily becomes a type of machiavellian "RealPolitik". Add Darwinism as well (and social Darwinism, which men like Churchill took as the final word on ethics and politics).

    The chat on CT about democracy or quasi-socialistic policies thus should be viewed as more or less ...pleasure based (or utilitarian, perhaps), as is the economics--in the tradition of...Smith and Hume. And all the charts and stats which macro-economists rely upon also tend to abstract political problems, but don't really obliterate the Smith-Hume skeptical foundation. The great depression or any crisis becomes a problem in probability (which the academic economists answer via guestimates).

    That's not to suggest some religious alternative, or marxism. But ...well..maybe check out Hegel's not-so-pleasant remarks on Hume and British empiricism as a whole to understand the...Counterforce for lack of a better term.


You can use some HTML tags, such as <b>, <i>, <a>