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April 04, 2005


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Rich Puchalsky

John, I do think that Zizek and his defenders like Jodi Dean have a certain point here. You write that: "You need some heavy duty argumentation. You need to get up to your elbows in varieties of liberalism." But there are liberal values embedded in that reply. According to Zizek, you *don't* need argumentation, you *don't* need thought, all that you need to do is condemn and obfuscate, and the liberal insistence on rationality and tolerance and looking at things fairly is so much hogwash that is a priori bad because it leads to the neoliberal order.

I don't know why you have trouble with this concept. Zizek doesn't think like you do, and there is no reason to expect him to. The standard disease of liberals is to try to argue with people who have indicated that they have no interest in argument.


I think one of the problems arises from the fact that there is no coherent liberal ideology. Unlike Conservatism, which has a core ideology and a list of talking points, plus a hierarchy to enforce them, Liberalism is actually a broad category tearm used, these days, to describe everything west of Reganomics and historically, anything that fell in-between Anarchism/Communism/Socialism on the left and Conservatism/Fascism on the Right. Liberalism is a broad term in that it has a list of categorical traits that may or may not apply to any individual or group that gets tossed into the category. Inherent contradictions arrise when people like Zizek try to paint everyone in an ad-hoc category as being part of a monolithic movement.

This problem arises from one of the inherent faults of the Conservative mindset: there must be a head, a body and a single goal because this sort of hierarchical inheritance is the only power structure that Conservatives recognise (which explains why we invaded states like Afghanistan and Iraq in order to fight stateless terrorists. You can't actually wage a war on terror, so you fall back into the standard categories, and start looking for states that will substitute for the real threat).

Zizek wants to look at Liberalism as if it were the result of Chairman Mao and Emma Goldman sitting down and hashing out plans for world domination, appointing leaders and issuing orders to their minions, simply because this is the only sort of arrangement they can conceive of. That it is an oversimplification and a fantasy is besides the point.



I think you've basically pegged it. Two further remarks.

1. Isn't it likely that by "liberalism" Zizek really means the neoliberal political/economic order? Isn't the tyrany of the mulinationals public enemy #1 these days, not Ronald Dworkin or whatever? If so, Zizek's argument becomes even weaker, as neoliberalism as political-economy can be supported my multiple philosophical traditions. As a for instance, neoliberalism in this sense has supporters ranging from utilitarians to Straussians (and David Frum!).

2. There is a form of liberalism against which something like the Dean move is effective. Let's call this liberalism "crude Rawls." Whether or not Rawls himself was ever at any point a crude Rawlsian is a good question, but certainly crude Rawlsianism did exist as a powerful strand of academic liberalism. Lots of people said (and still say) that the magic of the original position shows that liberalism can start out with a presumption of value neutrality and generate substantive norms. Tackling this mistake is old hat, and if Zizek wants credit for being the 20th man on the pile, fine.


'I think you've basically pegged it'

Just so you know, in England 'pegged it' means 'died'. I take it you're not using it in that sense.


Now John,

Could you kindly point me in the direction of a definition of Liberalism that you agree with (broadly). This is, just so y'know, a genuine request.


Could you point to a clear description of one form of liberalism that - in your opinion - doesn't suffer from this 'relativist mush' problem while still maintaining, as you say, its stand on a higher order value: liberty. Can such a thing exist without being immediately denounced by other liberals as a terrible perversion, as we see now with this 'neoliberalism' variety.



Oh, sorry, I didn't see that the request has already been made.


Here's another version of "pegged" I did not mean!

At what point will 50% of colloquial English also be filthy?


The paper I heard and turned into a quick summary was an academic paper that dealt with Berlin and some other contemporary American political theorists who extend the work of Rawls. The theorist who gave the paper orients his work in Wittgenstein and has nothing to do with Zizek. His (they guy who gave the paper) interest was in criticizing the notion of value pluralism in contemporary liberal political theory (again, an extension of debates around Rawls, particularly the later Rawls). In that literature, as well as in the comments of communitarian critics in the debates of the 80s, the idea of neutrality vis a vis competing conceptions of the good is a major theme and item of debate. It has nothing to do with mushy multiculturalism. Indeed, some of the liberal defenders of this notion of neutrality (especially as they extend it into a theory of deliberative democracy, and I have in mind here Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson)are quite critical of mushy multiculturalism on other grounds. The emphasis on value pluralism is also a characteristic of American liberal jurisprudence as it tries to 'balance' competing values within a framework of fairness and justice.


Jodi, I'm not saying that neutrality about the good has nothing to do to liberalism. I was merely objecting to your too-sweeping implication that somehow liberalism is inherently committed to it. I also wasn't inferring that the paper you heard had to be targeting mushy multiculturalism. I merely pointed out that the crude 'nutshell' version of the argument which you suggested was compelling against liberalism is only compelling against crude multiculturalism; so I inferred you were conflating them.


May I also point out that 'emphasis on value pluralism' is very far from 'attempting to bootstrap a liberal principle of tolerance out of believe in value pluralism.'

baa has a point, however, about how something you might call 'crude Rawlsianism' could be the target here. (But of course to equate 'liberalism' with a dubious commitment by one liberal thinker, however prominent, would be rather dubious.)

abc requests to know which version of liberalism I am willing to defend. I am quite honestly attracted to a number of variations. Reading the Stanford Encyclopedia entry I am sort of going, 'I could go for that, or that, or that'. That is, I consider liberalism attractive as a cluster of views, often mutually opposed but independently impressive. But I suppose Ich bin ein Isaiah Berliner, to a considerable extent. This is actually a bit old fashioned of me, but I think the proper way to go is to eliminate some of the problems with his account. (Sometimes the man can be a bit glib and quick.) So for present purposes you may, um, peg me accordingly.


If I've understood you correctly, you don't think that neutrality vis a vis different values is 'essential' to liberalism. Rather, you favor a combination of liberalisms, perhaps united under a value of negative liberty as theorized by Berlin. So, then maybe your account looks something like this: negative liberty is a primary human value; its instantiation in societies in the form of guaranteed rights (limitations on the state, division between public and private) is the result of history; liberalism, then, is worth protecting. So, the claim is basically that freedom is a value that liberals prioritize over and against the values that those of other political persuasians prioritize.

If this approximates your view, then it strikes me as a plausible defense of liberalism but not a liberal defense of liberalism. In other words, the defense is pragmatic (not quite communitarian as in a defense of 'our' values) ala Rorty.


Freedom! For the rich and for the poor the same exactly right to sleep under the bridge and to dine at the Ritz.

I'm with you: it's worth protecting. But will those guys sleeping under the bridge agree?

Will Wilkinson

What would a "liberal defense of liberalism" look like? Circular?

Berlin argues, as far as I can tell, that only some kind of value pluralism can make sense of observed moral reality. Value pluralism entails that there is no political system that perfectly and maximally exemplifies the good, because of the incompossibility of the various values. Liberty, however, though it is one value among many equally compelling values, and cannot, in isolation, be judged superior to other values, in fact tends to facilitate the imperfect realization of a wide diversity of different kinds of forms of life. Liberalism at least does less violence to the plurality of the good than the alternatives, and by trying to make space for pluralism, it diminishes conflict, and that's good. Liberalism, even when it aspires to the ideal of neutrality still rules things out, and some values are lost, which gives us reason to be mourn them. But it looks like we lose less, and have less reason to be mournful under liberalism than the major alternatives, which is a good reason to be a liberal.

That, I take it, is a pluralist defense of liberalism, which is what I take Berlin's defense to be. Because pluralism isn't liberalism, it's not a liberal defense of liberalism. And the argument isn't simply that liberalism "works," and thus isn't a "pragmatic" argument, strictly speaking. The argument, as far as I can see, is just that liberalism does less violence to fewer kinds of value than the alternatives, and because of that leads to less resentment and opposition than alternative social arrangements that do more violence to more values.

The annoying thing about Berlin's rather simple and straightforward argument is that there seems to me to be nothing wrong with it. We might harbor romantic aspirations for a world that exemplifies our own pet values to a maximal degree, in which case Berlin-style liberalism will seem deflationary or disappointing. But at least Berlin can see that, yes, indeed, we are missing out on something that might be beautiful and good and much much better along some dimension or other than is muddled old boring liberalism, just as jack-of-all trades misses out on the unique satisfactions of mastery. So he can acknowledge the merit of our totalizing aspirations, even while patiently pointing out all the violence to the moral fabric its realization must cause.

The best point of entry for a refutation of Berlin is the denial of value pluralism. But value pluralism is true! And, in any case, the liberal can always withdraw from metaphysical disputation and just point out, in Rawlsian fashion, that people cite and are moved by a plurality of reasons that are not obviously subsumable under any one master value.

Now, if one just knows that one's favored value is the master value, and that no price in suffering and death is too high, then there's no liberal argument that is going to talk you down. But that fact is hardly a compelling argument against liberalism. For it is not among the conditions for liberalism's adequacy that it be intellectually irresistable to the fanatical or the morally disturbed.


'Less harm' sounds like a good argument - if it's true. Seems to me that if you set 'liberty' high enough over everything else, you'll still create something quite ugly, not much better than communism or fascism.

This is probably a stupid question, but why not take all three: 'liberty', 'equality' and 'community' in no particular order and try to reconcile them the best you can?

I mean, why should 'liberty' trump 'equality'? It may make perfect sense for you because you're a smart and talented guy who will do well in the competition that unbound 'liberty' sets off, but a lot of people on the other side of the bell curve may not see it that way. They're likely to feel jealous, to feel that that a lot of violence to the plurality of the good is being done and all that. IOW, they might have a good reason to disagree.


Will Wilkinson

abb1, The point isn't to enjoy liberty for its own sake, although liberty, like much else, is good as such. I think Berlin's argument is basically this: It is in the distinctive nature of liberty to provide political space for the imperfect realization of goods other than liberty. Diminishing liberty, whether in favor of greater equality, community, or what have you, will restrict this space, and will thus do damage to some of the many values other than liberty that flourish under liberty. There are, of course, certain values other than equality that flourish under greater equality, too. So if you can increase equality without significantly decreasing freedom, then do it. Berlin wasn't exactly a laissez faire guy or a libertarian absolutist. However, we can't do any straightfoward moral mathematics in these cases, because of incommensurability problems, and so, when in doubt, its probably best to default to liberty on the assumption that it accomodates plurality better than the alternatives.

The Rawlsian liberal argument, in my probably too-pragmatic reading of it, is basically: First, secure liberty, because it's good for everybody for all sorts of reasons, including Berlin-like reasons about pluralism. Second, mitigate liberty to the extent that the people who would do worst under umitigated liberty are getting the best deal they could hope for, so that they have no good reason to complain about liberty. The result: not too much liberty & not too little. Just right.


The question is how one gets from the is of value pluralism to the ought that multiple values need to be given a space to flourish. So, one can accept value pluralism and then simply say that it leads to nothing--that it by itself cannot lead one in a specific particular direction. I take this to be a very strong criticism of Berlin. The burden is then to show why plural values need to be recognized or protected.

The need for a liberal justification for liberalism isn't circular. In fact, most of the liberal theorists with whom I am familiar take the justification to be the crucial matter of interest (so, there was more academic debate over Rawls' original position than over other matters....) A liberal who defends free choice generally argues that liberalism is what free people would choose (Locke, for example, or Rawls' thought experiment). A liberal who says that might makes right (that liberalism is the result of the violent overthrow of the government) is saying that violence can be justified and used to good ends, that in times of revolution, individual rights can be overturned. Generally, liberals do not make this argument and when they do, they think that those whose rights are overturned are entitled to a justification (Gutmann and Thompson make this argument; a more sophisticated version comes from the German philosopher Rainer Forst).

Will Wilkinson

Jodi, We need to be careful to distinguish the Berlin-like metaethical claim that there are plural objective values, and the Rawls-like non-methaethical claim different people are animated by different value-conceptions. In the first case, there is no obvious is/ought gap. Suppose pleasure is the only good thing. From the "is" of that fact we can move straightaway to the claim that we "ought" to promote pleaure, because it is analytic that one ought to promote to the good. Similarly, if A, B, and C, are objective goods, then there is no problem with the move that we ought to promote A, B, and C. If they are may not be rank ordered or mutually maximized, then things are trickier. But it's not obviously an is/ought leap to claim that we ought to arrange things to enable the realization of more of these kinds of value than less.

If we tack the Rawls tack, nothing does follow from the fact of pluralism independent of some wider set of goals that are shared. Suppose most people want to realize their ends with a minimum of conflict or social strife, and that what most people want is relevant to political justification. Then liberalism starts to look good.


Very interesting discussion. I have the flu, and a fever, so I am disqualified from contributing for a day or so. Let me just clarify that Jodi has not correctly understood me.

If I've understood you correctly, you don't think that neutrality vis a vis different values is 'essential' to liberalism.

This is a straightfoward enough point that the 'I think' is misplaced. How could it be that liberalism is committed to neutrality vis a vis different values? You couldn't set up the value of liberty over competing values, so you wouldn't be a liberal.

Rather, you favor a combination of liberalisms, perhaps united under a value of negative liberty as theorized by Berlin.

No, I didn't mean that I try to believe them all at once. I just think they are independently attractive as philosophies.

So, then maybe your account looks something like this: negative liberty is a primary human value; its instantiation in societies in the form of guaranteed rights (limitations on the state, division between public and private) is the result of history; liberalism, then, is worth protecting. So, the claim is basically that freedom is a value that liberals prioritize over and against the values that those of other political persuasians prioritize.

If this approximates your view, then it strikes me as a plausible defense of liberalism but not a liberal defense of liberalism. In other words, the defense is pragmatic (not quite communitarian as in a defense of 'our' values) ala Rorty.

No, it's merely not presuppositionless. What Will said.


Well, I'm not a philosopher and couldn't tell Berlin from schmerlin. But what I can see is political manifestation of this philosophy. Maybe it's not what Berlin had in mind, but Stalinism probably wasn't what Marx had in mind either. And what I see is that allowing a couple of lesbians to get a meaningless piece of paper from cityhall seems more important for you guys (generally speaking, maybe not you personally), than preventing and correcting the most revolting excesses of capitalist economy, not to mention horrible violence currently perpetrated under the banner of this philosophy. What gives?

I am sure theoretical egalitarianism can be defended just as convincingly and effectively as theoretical liberalism, but practical implementation should be the ultimate test of any theory - no?

Rich Puchalsky

abb1, you have a non-philosophical, pragmatic point, so I will attempt the same kind of answer. This line of attack on liberalism was tried in the last large Zizek thread here in a rather crude way by RIPope and a rather sophisticated way by Adam Kotsko. The answer need be nothing more than to point out that, no matter how bad you think life under liberalism is, life under other systems is worse. If the goal is living under the smallest possible amount of horrible violence and excess, no one can say that you will do better under some other system that has an actual historical record.

The counterattack on this is best carried out by someone like Chomsky, who points out that e.g. for the ex-USSR, a lot more people are dying under neoliberalism than were under late-stage Communism. Then you get into all sorts of arguments about whether Russian neoliberalism really is liberalism, whether there are local factors like the shock of losing superpower status, how much the Russian experience affects liberalism's record as a whole, etc.

But I also suspect that you're mixing up types of liberalism. You write that: "allowing a couple of lesbians to get a meaningless piece of paper from cityhall seems more important for you guys (generally speaking, maybe not you personally), than preventing and correcting the most revolting excesses of capitalist economy,". Are you now holding to a meaning of liberalism in which a union organizer is a liberal, or a neoliberal, or neither? Under what standard are we supposed to quantify how much political effort is spent in various areas by "liberals"?

Will Wilkinson

What are these "revolting excesses of capitalist economy" of which you speak?

Questions beforehand: Are they really (1) capitalist, (2) excesses, (3) revolting?

I am amused imagining huge banners with giant iconic pictures of Berlin and Rawls that are held high as the whooping warmongering "neo-liberals" descend for the slaughter.


I think a problem does emerge with goods A, B, C. The problem has to do with the presumption that more is better. So, if society A is oriented around A, it is good. And society B oriented around B is good. But why would we say that a society oriented around A and B is better just because there is more? That suggests that there is something wrong with A, that A is lacking. But we already said that A is good. So, the fact that there are plural values (A...Z) doesn't mean that a society that recognizes more of them is better. We need an independent argument that says why more is better. So, we have the idea that one ought to promote the good and that there are multiple goods. But we don't have an argument that says one ought to promote all these goods. A subset will suffice (since they are goods). And the political question is how justify the partioning.

Will Wilkinson

Jodi, It's tricky with incommensurable and sometimes incompatible goods. But not so tricky. Pluralism isn't the view that we ought to maximize the good, and that it just so happens that there are a bunch of things that are good. In that case, if some cluster of goods works well together, and we'd get the most total generic good if we partioned things that way, then we ought to do that, even at the cost of all the other good. But the pluralist point is that there is NO generic good, and EACH kind of good has an independent claim on us not because it instantiates a generic goodmaking quality, but because of it's distinctive nature.

So pluralism isn't asking you to maximize the total amount of generic good, because there is no generic good. And it isn't asking you to maximize the number of kinds of good that are expressed, either. Not that more is better. It is asking you to recognize that each good is good, and as such has some claim on you.

If something is objectively good, then, other things equal, you should promote it. The tricky thing about pluralism is that other things are often not equal, since promoting one good can conflict with the expression of another. So sometimes we must regretfully forego one value in the service of another. Our decision is not algorithmic or rule-governed. There is no rule. One must take the full context of one's projects, plans, and character into account. Good moral choice in the face of plural goods is a matter of the accurate perception of the particularity of the situation, practical wisdom, and moral imagination.

But this kind of contextually embedded moral sensitivity and practical intelligence is not something that may be well expressed, or expressed at all, by the state. So the state, insofar as it is possible, ought to leave the hard problem of trading one value against another to its citizens. In practice, this means maintaining an social environment of liberty. Sometimes patterns of individual decision will lead to bad macro-effects, and there may be sufficient agreement, or overlap in judgments about the good, that society may want to use the state to help correct these, or prevent them. But they'll also be cautious, because the state functions as a backhoe in the many-colored garden of value, and usually you need a spade.


Rich, I am merely suggesting that overrating of the value of 'liberty' ('rights') is not necessarily as harmless as it may seem.

What happens is that in practice this philosophy is used to fortify one particular 'liberty': the right to own, acquire and accumulate property. Well, I don't think it's harmless. It causes very serious injury to other fundamental values: equality, obviously, and many others too. And at some point it turns into something that's sort of opposite of 'liberty'.

No, I don't think a union organizer is generally a liberal. You know what the stereotype for a union organizer is, don't you: a thug. I see a union organizer as more of a communist than a liberal.

Will: funny about the banner. You right, on a banner and without massive facial hair? - ridiculous.

Rich Puchalsky

abb1, I've worked with and for real union organizers. My grandfather was one of them. And they certainly didn't and don't think of themselves as Communists. On the contrary, they knew that Communists have always suppressed unions.

As for "What happens is that in practice this philosophy is used to fortify one particular 'liberty': the right to own, acquire and accumulate property", I can only repeat my previous answer. If you are speaking against a philosophy because of its pragmatic results, then you really should show that another solution can do pragmatically better. If you get to bring in the unjust accumulation of property, or, let's say, the Iraq war, then liberals get to bring in Stalinism, and you lose that comparison.


Forgive the naive or "non-philosophical" question Rich, but how could one ever pragmatically predict the future, i.e. prove that some as-yet-unrealized, perhaps unimagined version of Socialism can do better? And who says that Stalinism ever existed in a pure historical void, unentangled with Liberalism? It seems to me that if you're going to allow Liberalism its many competing (or is that supplementing) versions, facets or ambiguities, one ought to extend the same courtesy to Socialism/Communism. But then I suppose History has spoken...and you (or your grandfather anyway) was actually there?

Rich Puchalsky

Shannon, I'm not a philosopher, so my attempt to give a non-philosophical answer wasn't ironic. If your reply was serious, then I'd say that we have a number of historical examples of Socialism to choose from; none of them did well. If you want to blame their not doing well on them being "entangled with Liberalism", i.e. on competition with Liberalism, then I can only reply that competition goes two ways and that Socialism had a fair try insofar as anything in history is fair. Because Socialism lost in the past does not mean that in some mysterious sense it is less likely to lose in the future.

Lastly, of course I'm not saying that no "some as-yet-unrealized, perhaps unimagined version of Socialism can do better". What I'm saying is that insofar as this future version of Socialism resembles currently known Socialism, it is likely to fail. And getting back to Zizek in particular, his version of Socialism resembles existing historical versions to such a degree that he evidently feels the need to partially rehabilitate Stalinism as part of a project of public acceptance of it.


My grandfather was one of them. And they certainly didn't and don't think of themselves as Communists.

That's odd, I always thought in the old days most union organizers were communists. I'm having hard time imagining them being liberals, either libertarians like Will or social liberals like John.

If you are speaking against a philosophy because of its pragmatic results, then you really should show that another solution can do pragmatically better.

I'm saying that a combination, mixture of different philosophies might work better. Liberalism - yes, to a degree, but egalitarianism isn't less important nor is traditionalism/nationalism (even though I'm not a big enthusiast of that stuff). In the end you'll have to lose a fair amount of 'liberty' (economic and social) to accomodate these other things.

BTW, communism does have a positive example (outside of exotic tropical islands): kibbutz movement. See, just combining pure communism with pure nationalism already you get something viable. Without any liberalism whatsoever, or almost any.


One theoretical move often deployed (often by people within the liberal tradition) is to suggest that *positive* liberty is what's needed to realize a plurality of values. Sure, the argument goes, Government does a poor job measuring value against value, but can it not reliably trade one particular value (economic liberty) against all others? Thus, tax some to provide 'capabilities' to all.

He's not to mind mind the best exponent of this line of argument, but here is Phillipe Van Parijs' version:

"Social justice, I believe, requires that our institutions be designed to best secure real freedom to all. Such a real-libertarian conception of justice combines two ideas. First, the members of society should be formally free, with a well-enforced structure of property rights that includes the ownership of each by herself. What matters to a real libertarian, however, is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the "worth of liberty." At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty."

I would be fascinated to know what Will thinks arguments like this.

Rich Puchalsky

abb1, I don't know how the union movement went elsewhere, but in the U.S., its history past the point where unionists had any actual experience with Communism is inseperable from the New Deal. FDR was a liberal, Gompers was a liberal, J.L. Lewis was a liberal. I don't know what a "social liberal" is, but it sounds like a stereotype.

Socialists and anarchists dominated the early labor movement, but once Communism became a reality, unionists realized that if a union is going to collectively bargain on the behalf of workers against an employer, and the employer is the state, then the state has to be willing to permit power centers in society that work against it. In the USSR, "unions" still existed, but they were essentially tools of Party discipline. Independent unions were crushed.

If you look at that wiki article on Kibbutzim that you linked to, you'll see
"While kibbutzim lasted for several generations as utopian communities, today kibbutzim are scarcely different from the capitalist enterprises and regular towns to which kibbutzim were originally supposed to be alternatives" and a description of how they are fading away. It's the same story with Socialist parties becoming Social Democratic (i.e. liberal, by most definitions) and so on.


'Social Democratic' and 'Liberal' are not the same - this was the whole point of the previous Zizek discussion, if I understand it correctly. 'Social-Democratic' used to mean 'Marxist' (and still does in the US). Over the years Marxism has become associated with Stalinism and radicalism, so social-democratic movements cleansed it out and became more and more 'liberal', i.e. 'Democratic-Capitalist-ish' (or vaguely thirdwayish). That's what Zizek is unhappy about - this process has gone too far. I think Adam commented to this effect somewhere.

Will Wilkinson


I'm all for the fair value of the basic liberties, which, like Milton Friedman & FA Hayek, I think is best provided by robust civil society institutions and a minimal, well-designed (i.e., moral hazard minimizing) state safety net.

van Parijs's proposal is less realistic and probably less intellectually serious than Rothbardian anarchocapitalism. It's a form of political fantasy fiction.

Here are some things that are wrong with van Parijs:

- The whole idea of reciprocity as the basis of justice as fairness. (Read Anderson & Galston in the symposium you link to.)

- Relatedly, no appreciation whatsoever for the way minimizing the "strains of commitment" is necessary for mostly voluntary compliance with the terms of social interaction, which is necessary for stability, which is necessary for justice. (vP insists on using Rawlsian language, but he simply does not understand the logic of Rawlsian contractualism.)


- Massive, perverse, economic dislocation that would undermine the whole point of his notion of the UBI (would diminish "real freedom.")

- Total nonchalance about questions of the distribution of political power. The question of how this magical benevolently and gently coercive paternalist agent of redistributive justice becomes installed, or gets maintained, or checked (should magical benevolence unexpectedly wane) doesn't even arise. You think economists are bad? Try van Parijs. Assume a can opener!

Will Wilkinson

Clarification: My first bullet point is meant to say that van Parijs doesn't grasp the idea of reciprocity, not that he does, and that there's something wrong with the idea. There's something very very right with the idea, and he doesn't get it.



I agree Van Parijs is kind of a joke version of the "positive liberty" argument. If you've read his now infamous welfare-for-surf bums paper, you know that he doesn't seem to get actually understand economic actions as a form of freedom. This was bad enoguh to get mocked by Liz Anderson, which is pretty bad.

I wasn't looking, actually, for your response to Van Parijs 'the man', but rather your thoughts on the principled challenge represented by the positive liberty argument of which Van Parijs is the extreme end.

Would it be fair to characterize your thinking as:

1. Granting the point in principle: negative liberty does not suffice, some positive liberties must be provided. To that extent, we are all "real libertarians."
2. Noting that the provision of positive liberties has a real reciprocity/fairness problem, and that this is a moral concern.
3. Noting that the expansive provision of positive liberties genreates severe practical problems -- getting consensus, moral hazard,'liberalism of fear' concerns about state power, etc.


Will Wilkinson

Yeah, that's pretty fair. I wrote a blog post about this in the not distant past: http://willwilkinson.net/flybottle/archives/2004/11/the_freedom_to.html


Yeah, government-managed redistribution sure doesn't feel like a viable solution. But some kind of a class-compromise, some power-sharing arrangement like institutionalized representation of workers on boards of directors would be a good start, IMO.



Thanks for the link (your blog is great, by the way).

The pragmatic arguments for limiting positive liberty sway me, as do the positive sum justifications for property/economic liberty.

While those arguments are more convincing, I find more interesting the argument (touched on in your reference to reciprocity) that negative liberties are bona fide deontologically different than positive liberties. I think many of us have the intuition that negative rights aren't just superior instruments for achieving human capabilites, but are in themselves a superior system of human relations. That seems to me a fun project to flesh out.


I've been busy elsewhere and haven't really had the energy to contribute, but this has turned out to be a really great thread which I have really enjoyed reading. Thanks to Will, in particular. (I now notice, with shame, that he is not in the blogroll, where he ought to be by rights because - hell, I read him. In he goes.


This from a guy who blogrolls Instapundit.


But only for old time's sake, Seth. In the old days he wasn't so bad.

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J&B Have A Comment Policy

  • This edited version of our comment policy is effective as of May 10, 2006.

    By publishing a comment to this blog you are granting its proprietors, John Holbo and Belle Waring, the right to republish that comment in any way shape or form they see fit.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you hereby agree to the following as well: by leaving a comment you grant to the proprietors the right to release ALL your comments to this blog under this Creative Commons license (attribution 2.5). This license allows copying, derivative works, and commercial use.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you are also granting to this blog's proprietors the right to so release any and all comments you may make to any OTHER blog at any time. This is retroactive. By publishing ANY comment to this blog, you thereby grant to the proprietors of this blog the right to release any of your comments (made to any blog, at any time, past, present or future) under the terms of the above CC license.

    Posting a comment constitutes consent to the following choice of law and choice of venue governing any disputes arising under this licensing arrangement: such disputes shall be adjudicated according to Canadian law and in the courts of Singapore.

    If you do NOT agree to these terms, for pete's sake do NOT leave a comment. It's that simple.

  • Confused by our comment policy?

    We're testing a strong CC license as a form of troll repellant. Does that sound strange? Read this thread. (I know, it's long. Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there.) So basically, we figure trolls will recognize that selling coffee cups and t-shirts is the best revenge, and will keep away. If we're wrong about that, at least someone can still sell the cups and shirts. (Sigh.)