Monday, March 17, 2014

Justice and Justification

Part V of a Mungerfesto in five parts is now available at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. The theme is "autonomy". A more euvoluntary society is one that preserves, even encourages autonomy. Munger surveys three proposals that would increase individual sovereignty against the status quo: basic income, state-funded education, and single-payer health care. Importantly, to remain in the realm of euvoluntary, these shall be state-funded, but not state-provided. State provision is coercive.

Munger's tone throughout is strongly Aristotelian. Or at least that's how it seems to me. Perhaps I've just got Aristotle on my mind lately. But consider this passage:
[T]he core precept of autonomy is that people be held responsible for their own choices. If the consequences of those choices are good, and create value, then people profit. If the consequences are harmful, then people suffer losses. The problem is that if exchange settings are not euvoluntary, people cannot be held responsible for their choices, either for good or bad. That’s why societies fail: people are prevented from enjoying the benefits, or suffering from the harms, that they participate through their choices in creating.
 At the risk of quibbling (and second-guessing), I think what the GTM means by "responsible" is "accountable." Responsibility is an individual, internal virtue. Accountability is the public side of responsibility; accountability calls for a reckoning of responsibility. But both are bound by the prescriptions of justice. If Aristotle was right that the natural limits of a mature justice fit inside Dunbar's Number, then the campaigns of paternalism waged through the tripartite bureaucracies Munger would dismantle only ever risk the possibility of being Just (in a Platonic sense) by sheer dumb luck.

Accountability as a measure of euvoluntarity rests on a critically important question: accountable to whom?

In-kind transfer programs suffer from nasty accountability problems. Ideally, the consumption decisions of welfare check (I know, I know, it's TANF or SNAP or the Farm Bill or oil company subsidies or whatever) recipients should be justified to the people ultimately writing the checks, i.e. the taxpayer. But is there a genuine accounting there? Or do the public's bureaucratic proxies face incentives that may not properly align with the wishes of the taxpaying public? Under a Basic Income, everyone would justify their spending decisions the same way: first to their conscience and then to their family, friends, and neighbors.

Likewise for public education. As primary education slouches toward the Potomac, extremely important neighborhood relationships risk being weakened. There is no justice when a student in Pasadena is rendered accountable to a career bureaucrat in Sacramento.

Ditto for health care. I can't say for sure exactly whether or not the PPACA is a marginal improvement over the status quo, but even if it turns out that way, it's damning with awfully faint praise. It's not even clear to health care professionals exactly to whom they are accountable. Patients? Insurance firms? The state? The public?

The muscular individualist formulation of libertarianism is, I think, wrong in its role as a bit of descriptive philosophy. Nicomachean justice is not a solitary pursuit, just as humans are not a solitary species. It is wise to question the relentless aggregation and nationalization of an increasingly large set of human activity, but it's an error of the same type to push too far back in the other direction. The Mungerfesto shows how it is that a political philosophy can be consistent with both autonomy and community. It's not so much an exercise in finding an illusory middle ground as it is in recognizing and respecting the natural limits on what can be circumscribed by a wise, informed, virtuous set of institutions.

I wonder if there's a way to rehabilitate methodological individualism along similar lines.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?