Controlling libertarians

February 22, 2012

I give David Brooks credit for trying to make sense of people who want very little government involvement in things like business and finance but are comfortable with government involvement in things like contraception and bearing children without being married.  It came up in his Conversation with Gail Collins today, and I still can’t link (still waiting to hear back from WordPress), but here’s the address: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/22/who-decided-that-this-election-should-be-about-sex/?hp

The passage I guess I would focus on is,

As to your larger point, I do think it’s consistent to be economically libertarian and socially paternalistic. In fact I’d argue dynamic capitalism requires a stringent and coherent social order to help guard against its savageries — tight families to educate children, anti-materialist values to police rampant consumerism, a spiritual public square to mitigate the corrosive culture of greedy self-interest.

Free market beliefs and socially conservative beliefs require each other, so long as those socially conservative beliefs are traditional, not theological. I’m for traditional values, with government playing a small role to support them. I get worried when some politician begins trying to legislate his faith’s version of Natural Law.

That’s David Brooks talking.

My first reaction is that what Brooks is really saying is that he finds it internally consistent in himself to be both economically libertarian and socially paternalistic.  I’d guess from his columns telling other people what to do that he’s okay with, well, telling other what to do.  What I have never seen is whether he later takes responsibility for the damage when things don’t go according to his script for the other people involved.  Paternalism as I’ve seen it tends to be big on the prescriptive dictates and light on the accountability end of things, usually with some sort of declination of responsibility, whether on the basis of cluelessness or principle.

But it’s certainly less interesting to see what Brooks said as just a reflection of his own stuff.  If I look at his argument as an idea, my first question is, how did we get from paternalism to traditional values?  Paternalism is about foisting, libertarianism is about not [foisting].   The inconsistency within the Republican position of backing off on environmental regulation while trying to regulate people’s consensual adult sexual activity and medical handling of issues involving sex is the foisting part, not the values part.  Even if traditional values complement a very free market, how can we justify forcing regulation on one while being against forcing regulation on the other?  If we can be inconsistent on the acceptability of force, then it must be on the grounds of the rightness of the substance of each position: that free business practices are good and so are traditional values, so we use whatever means we need to, however inconsistent with each other, to assure our society of both.

This, to me, is like saying to a student, please choose your own courses but wear this uniform to class — you can do it, even justify it, but it’s predicated on a separate assumption that you’re right about the uniforms and the cost/benefit of letting kids choose their courses.  It’s not consistent in terms of process or in terms of a larger policy of whether students should learn to make their own choices and become more independent — it’s picking and choosing issues according to something else.

In the libertarian economics / traditional values context, it’s a preexisting belief that free markets lead to good things and unfree social choice leads to good things, it’s not about the rights of the people in either context or a consistent process for sorting out what leads to good things and what doesn’t.

Sometimes I think it’s about a view of self-control, whether someone like David Brooks trusts people to exercise it.  In a sense, Brooks is saying no, he doesn’t, but he’s relegating its coercion to the social sector in the hopes it will also control the market sector.  He could make a different decision and say, no, I don’t trust people to exercise self-control in both places and therefore will regulate both directly.  Why he chooses to regulate one directly and one indirectly is something he hasn’t maybe addressed.  I harbor a suspicion that he feels more comfortable delegating his own decision-making in areas requiring self-control, on the one hand, to sets of rules in social relations, while, on the other hand, he trusts himself more in business situations.  But I think he hides behind that delegation (in the former situation) to avoid coming to grips with the possibility that choosing an option within the social rules does not mean self-control has been sufficiently exercised — if I need to save my allowance to buy my mother a present, what difference does it make that I have used the money for something also socially acceptable, when I instead buy my friend a present?

Probably what it comes down to is that I have a different pattern of thinking, that, when mapped over David Brooks’s pattern, is incongruent — that is, he probably makes sense to himself, as much as I think I make sense.  But I enjoy trying to understand what he’s seeing, or thinks he’s seeing, in some kind of hope on my part that he’s actually seeing something very helpful that I just can’t see.

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2 Responses to “Controlling libertarians”


  1. I like the title of your post. “Controlling” works as both adjective and verb. You make good arguments, too.


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