Moral Agency, Not an Agency of Morals
“Born into a world of enemies, surrounded by violent racial hate, with no obvious means of protection, Lupescu did what she had to do: she auctioned off her body – the only thing she had to sell – to each and every bidder, playing one off against the other, all the way up to the king. As always in the Balkans, bare survival provides precious little room for moral choices.”
– Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, p. 89.*
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. “
– Anatole France
“Well, it seems that Good is that which results in more Moral Agency (as opposed to more automation).Instead of mere reaction, one can choose between X and Y. Becoming more of a moral agent means that one can chooce between X and Y and Zed. And then Aleph. And so on.
Conversely, evil would, it seems to me, lead down a path of X and Y and Zed and Aleph (and so on) to an ability to only choose between X and Y and Zed. And then only X and Y.”
This post may well be what finally leads to the forced deactivation of my Secret Libertarian Decoder Ring, but I don’t think it should, since I’ve argued for the legitimacy of strong social safety nets before. And although this piece is primarily directed at libertarians and conservatives, I hope our liberal-leaning readership will appreciate it (think of it as an attempt to explain a key project of liberalism in the Conservatarian language).
In any event, I think Jaybird’s quote above is a pretty good example of how the average non-anarchist libertarian would (if pressed) view the proper role of government, to wit: the maximization of individual moral agency at a particular moment in time, the antithesis of which is the legislation of morality. Obviously, libertarians typically prefer certain means for the achievement of this and may phrase it differently, but generally speaking, even the minarchist libertarian envisions that a government is necessary to protect the right to exercise moral agency. For instance, as Jaybird argues in the post above, theft is the removal of moral agency from a particular individual. For what it’s worth, I entirely agree with this, which is why I find the Anatole France quote above a terribly unpersuasive argument for Marxism.
But the very concept of “theft” presupposes the existence of a uniform system of property rights, guaranteed and enforced by the government. And, while many libertarians may find a more or less Lockean system of property rights to be superior, the fact is that any system of property rights implies a system of enforced morality as to who should and should not own property; ie, whether the owner of a piece of land is the person who first laid claim to it or the person who first worked it or the person who most worked it or the person who most recently worked it requires that the State place real restrictions on the moral agency of those it decides against. I’m treading into Jason’s territory here (and I expect him to thus utterly dismantle me rhetorically), but I have a difficult time avoiding the conclusion that, as such, systems of property rights are ultimately better classified as positive liberties than negative liberties. Regardless, few non-anarchist libertarians – myself included – would acknowledge that systems of property rights are really the legislation of morality, at least not as long as they are uniformly enforced. And indeed, systems of property rights are ultimately necessary to permit individuals to maximize their moral agency. For that matter, the lack of a uniformly accepted system of property rights can even almost completely eliminate the capacity for moral agency since “bare survival provides precious little room for moral choices.”
So we’ve established that, in order to maximize aggregate individual moral agency, one needs to somewhat arbitrarily restrict the exercise of certain types of moral agency. This is not without widespread effects, and libertarians should not pretend otherwise. The ownership of a certain (unknown) amount of property, whether real, personal, or liquid, is largely a prerequisite to a particular individual, group, family, or tribe to reach a point where “bare survival” is not an issue that “provides precious little room for moral choices.” Moreover, in a capitalist economy without safety nets, one needs property to gain property, and a pretty respectable amount of property to gain enough property to reach a state where meaningful moral agency is something other than an unattainable luxury.
Social safety nets and the taxes that support them are, ultimately, little more than an attempt to define property rights in such a way that the moral agency of those who would otherwise be deprived of their moral agency is restored.
In response to this line of argument yesterday (which implies that the capacity for moral agency in the age of social safety nets is superior to any previous time in history), Jaybird raised the following points and questions:
Are we really better moral agents than the abolitionist movement? How about the Fathers of the American Revolution? How about that awesome Muslim period that lasted a couple hundred years? How about the Romans? How about the Greeks?
The past is another country. I don’t feel that the ground I stand upon is firm enough for me to say that, of course, we’re better at this than they are. It reminds me of the folks who point out that, of course, we’re better than China. Of course, we’re better than Canada. Of course, we’re better than Denmark.
My answer to Jaybird’s set of questions is “I have no idea.” But I do think it’s safe to say that it’s no coincidence that the American Revolution – sparked by moral questions about rights in a rather well-off set of colonies – was far less savage than the French Revolution, which was sparked in the midst of a “bare survival” famine that hit the peasantry particularly hard.
I also think that it’s no coincidence that the abolitionist movement (and really any number of social reform movements) began with a small set of elites, with the last fiercely anti-abolition holdouts in the North coming from the ranks of the most desperately poor immigrants.
All of which is to say that, although I would not claim that we, as a society, are more (or less, for that matter) capable of exercising moral agency than the Abolitionist Movement, I would claim that social safety nets are useful and necessary to assure that all of us in a society are capable of possessing a meaningful amount of moral agency.
I’ll conclude by turning back to the Anatole France quote. As I said above, I find it a terribly unpersuasive argument for communism or for the doing away of property rights. But it does imply something that can’t be ignored: the enforcement of property rights often requires that the State engage in profound moral judgments and preferences that have absolutely nothing to do with any conception of “equality before the law.” If this is true, then it suggests a tremendous flaw in the way we have chosen to define property rights, at least if we think property rights should and do represent something other than the legislation of morality. There are really only two ways to remedy this flaw: the abolition of property rights entirely, which is obviously unacceptable; or we use this magnificent invention we call currency to attempt to approximate the damage caused by uniform enforcement of property rights and make whole those whose moral agency our enforcement of property rights has restricted.
*I acknowledge that this quote itself has nothing to do with social safety nets, but it was fresh in my mind and I thought it a poignant example of how the need to survive can make moral agency a luxury good.