On Mores as a Distinction between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism

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Jaybird

Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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  1. Avatar Citizen
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    says:

    This needs to be unpacked:

    “Mores explain why some societies appear to tolerate, or even demand, various forms of coercion more readily than others, and if that’s not important to implementing libertarianism, then nothing is. Development of certain mores would clearly help the libertarian project, even narrowly understood, and development of others would clearly hurt it.”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Citizen
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      says:

      I will try to unpack.

      Mores explain why some societies appear to tolerate, or even demand, various forms of coercion more readily than others, and if that’s not important to implementing libertarianism, then nothing is.

      Okay, there are certain forms of coercion that we, as a society, don’t even really notice (or, even, celebrate to the point where we ask others why they didn’t participate in the group act of public shaming).

      Dig, if you will, reporters asking Walker what he thought about what Giuliani said.

      Another example would be the questioning of why so-and-so remained silent on a particular topic (I’m sure you’ve seen this sort of thing in comments before).

      Now, I’m sure that you’re aware that such tactics aren’t really *THAT* cool. Like Dean Martin said, that’s a more. (Or, I suppose, you might see that, hey, that’s the way the game is played. That’s another.)

      Development of certain mores would clearly help the libertarian project, even narrowly understood, and development of others would clearly hurt it.

      Given the above, this is probably pretty uncontroversial. A more that said “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it” would probably be more helpful for the libertarian project than one that said “it’s very important that we, as a society, make sure that speech falls within certain parameters that are defined as follows… A, B, C…”

      (Did I do okay?)Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        That’s pretty good.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        Likewise, being unwilling to turn the indigent away from emergency rooms requires compromises that being fine with that does not.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        Absolutely. But I think that we might be able to make distinctions between mores that one believes should apply to everyone and mores that one believes should merely apply to others.Report

      • Avatar Gaelen in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        @jaybird

        Are those really forms of coercion? Or, more to the point, are those forms of coercion that a libertarian would recognize as coercion?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        If the libertarian is Jason, I think that the answer is yes.

        Surely you can’t be asking that, though. Could you rephrase the question? I’m sure I didn’t understand it.Report

      • Avatar Gaelen in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        How is a reporter, or a number of reporters, asking Walker a question about Giuliani’s statement a form of coercion?

        Is public shaming–ie. mocking or ridiculing the opinion or actions of another–a form of coercion in the way Jason or other libertarians would use the term?

        I was under the impression that libertarian’s had a much more limited understanding of coercion. Something along the lines of, the use of force to interfere with the rights of another to their person or property.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        How is a reporter, or a number of reporters, asking Walker a question about Giuliani’s statement a form of coercion?

        We agree that there are social consequences to answering this way, that way, and other social consequences to answering “I’m not going to answer that dumb-assed question.” Right? To the extent that there are different carrots and sticks among different constituencies, the journalist is (somewhat transparently) asking a question whose main purpose is to get the politician to show which group he prefers to get carrots/sticks from. (Compare to someone asking Hillary what she thinks of Obama’s failure to use certain terms with regards to ISIS.)

        Now I’m guessing, from your question, that you have a negative connotation with coercion. If someone says “coercion” your assumption seems to be that it’s automatically “bad”. (Am I wrong on that?) If that’s your assumption on how I am (and, I suspect, Jason is) using the term, please understand that I think that that assumption is a mistake. It’s descriptive. If “force” is hard power, “coercion” is being used here as more of soft power. Societal disapproval, that sort of thing.

        For example, if you see someone jump a line at the grocery store and someone from the line yells out “hey! There’s a line!”, that fits the definition of “coercion” that we’re using with regards to mores.

        Is public shaming–ie. mocking or ridiculing the opinion or actions of another–a form of coercion in the way Jason or other libertarians would use the term?

        Given that he wrote the essay in the first place and that I’ve done stuff like attempt to unpack one of his paragraphs describing how he’s doing just that, I’d say “Yes. Obviously. As has been demonstrated by the very thread in which we happen to be discussing this.”

        I was under the impression that libertarian’s had a much more limited understanding of coercion. Something along the lines of, the use of force to interfere with the rights of another to their person or property.

        Is there a word you’d rather libertarians use for the application of negative societal pressure that doesn’t resort to physical violence?Report

  2. Avatar Citizen
    Ignored
    says:

    Which mores should be imposed on society and who chooses?

    Libertarianism has the ability to exist in non-pluralism in a way that classical liberalism hasn’t survived the repeated tendencies torward socialism.

    In the end who is to say that pluralism itself is not a ““despotism of custom”?Report

  3. Avatar Tod Kelly
    Ignored
    says:

    Agreed that this was a great CT post by Jason.

    I was happier to see his previous post, though. I’ve long argued that if libertarianism ever wanted mainstream success and respect, it needed to spend less time mocking people who accurately notice what it’s most public faces say and more time cleaning its house. I’m not surprised to see Jason be the guy who attempts to do just that.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Tod Kelly
      Ignored
      says:

      “cleaning house”, eh? It’s a bit thick to criticize libertarians for not coercing people when about the only thing libertarians agree on is that coercion should happen as little as possible (and, ideally, not at all.)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Jim Heffman
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        says:

        Rumormongering on public figures just makes your movement look tawdry, at best, and dishonest at worst.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Jim Heffman
        Ignored
        says:

        Sorry, not dishonest. Cowardly and afraid to actually expose ideas to honest criticism.Report

      • Avatar RTod in reply to Jim Heffman
        Ignored
        says:

        @jim-heffman If making an argument that “that’s not what libertarianism is about and they’re not with us” rises to the level of “coercion” that is something a liberatarian wouldn’t do, then I’ve never met one.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman
        Ignored
        says:

        Saying that you’ve never met a sufficiently pure libertarian might just be the most libertarian thing I’ve ever seen you do, RTod.

        (That said, I think that Heffman is making a mistake about coercion. It’s physical force that libertarians are very much against. Coercion, at least as it’s being used here, is something that they have tended to not see as anywhere near as big a deal. (Hey, if you don’t like it, coerce back.) What I see Jason as doing is coming out and saying that, hey, sometimes coercion (social pressures) are used for evil as often as good. As such, we need to coerce others to use coercion for good rather than for evil. Meta-coercion, if you will.)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jim Heffman
        Ignored
        says:

        To recap:

        Coercion (by the force of the state) is a bad thing.

        Coercion’ (social pressure) can be good of bad, depending on the whether it pushes in a libertarian or non-libertarian direction.

        Coercion” (having your life choices severely restricted by disparities in wealth and/or income) is an unreserved good.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman
        Ignored
        says:

        See? It’s all about which coercion you see as appropriate to engage in and which is beyond the pale.

        If we said that “we are fine with redistribution, we just want it to be socially shameful to be a recipient and socially praiseworthy to be a contributor”, we’d find ourselves having another argument entirely.

        Unless, of course, we were talking about the tax dollars of states, in which case we’d see a handful of people seemingly change position.

        If we’ve reached the point where coercion is only of trivial interest and we now want to discuss which mores we, as a society, want to start using to coerce others to behave, I suspect that that’d be interesting until we discover that “liberal” is shorthand for this group of preferred mores, “conservative” is shorthand for that group, and “libertarian” is shorthand for yet another group of them.

        And we can get back to stage one.

        At least the journey will have been pleasant.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Jim Heffman
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        says:

        “If making an argument that “that’s not what libertarianism is about and they’re not with us”…”

        um that’s not exactly cleaning house, at least in any way that would satisfy the kind of people who think that libertarian philosophy is a house that needs to be cleaned.

        If you want there to not be racists who say they’re just libertarians, then that is not something you will ever get.Report

  4. Avatar LWA
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    says:

    Libertarians are grappling with some of the same issues that progressives do, which is the match between theory and constituency.

    Who is the constituency for this? Who is it intended to benefit? Does it reflect their mores, their set of values? When there is a mismatch, which one is moderated to fit?

    It reminds me of the bewilderment that liberals express when blue collar people vote Republican, that the cultural mores and values they hold are deemed incompatible with the progressive agenda.

    If cultural mores are viewed as an impediment to the political theory, doesn’t that sort of make a mockery of the trumpeted value of agency and liberation?

    It also reminds me of that old joke about the communist organizer, where he tells the peasants that “come the revolution” they will have fast cars, free beer, and loose women, and when a peasant tells him that he doesn’t like to drive, drinks vodka instead of beer, and is happy with his wife, the organizer tells him, “Come the revolution, you’ll do as your damn well told.”Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to LWA
      Ignored
      says:

      Libertarians are grappling with some of the same issues that progressives do, which is the match between theory and constituency.

      I don’t think that’s correct, LWA. I think Jason’s point is a distinction betwee theory and practice, where “practice” doesn’t include the concept of constituency so much as the public. If certain prevailing norms conflict with the implementation of a principle that makes perfect sense on paper (a paperiori !!) then how does the theoretistician account for the discrepancy? Claiming that the norms are invalid or wrong doesn’t really cut any ice on the practical side of things.

      On the other hand, I think the theoretical point Jason is getting at in the linked to post is consistent with how he approaches libertarianism more generally: getting closer to his conception of libertopia requires changing the norms people are currently acting on or within. It’s of a piece, so to speak.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Stillwater
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        says:

        The triumph of libertarianism awaits only the emergence of New Libertarian Man.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        Mike,

        That made me chuckle. But in defense of my take of Jason’s views, I’d say that it’s better to promote change in prevailing norms than to impose a correction via the force of gummint. And if that’s an accurate description, then I admit – without reluctance – I agree with him.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        @Stillwater
        I don’t understand this phrase-
        “…where “practice” doesn’t include the concept of constituency so much as the public. ”

        Is there a difference between constituency and the public?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        LWA,

        Seems to me there is. The term “constituency” is a political term referring (I think, anyway) to the group of voters who’s interests you ostensibly represent. The term “public” just means the folks who live in a town, county, state, country… It’s a non-political term.

        Or let’s just say that those are the meanings of the terms as I’m using them to clarify what I took to be Jason’s point in his post. I mean, ultimately, I have no idea how those terms are supposed to be defined or used, since pert-near everything is political these days.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        OK, but most political theories assert that they have a universal constituency- that adoption of conservative policies will, for instance, result a rising tide for all boats, or that New Deal liberalism benefits even the rich who are taxed progressively.

        At the street level the talk is different, but the underlying premise remains. So Thomas Frank believes that liberalism would benefit Kansans, even if they don’t realize it, and Newt Gingrich believes black people would benefit from voting Republican, if they could just get rid of that plantation mentality.

        Which is why I draw the comparison here;
        Apparently in order to expand the libertarian tent, newcomers must first have a conversion experience, where they shed their old mores and adopt new ones in response to the preached gospel.
        An example of this might be the changing attitudes towards same sex marriage or marijuana use.

        The more challenging question is how to deal with mores that are unappealing to the core group; Can the philosophy be flexible and adapt to mores which some find unappealing, and if so, which ones?

        An example of this might be Rand Paul discovering flexibility on the self-ownership of pregnant women.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        OK, but most political theories assert that they have a universal constituency-

        And that is the problem with most political theories.

        Contra Mike above, the difference between New Socialist Man and what most libertarians want is that most libertarians don’t want to triumph over anything. We just want the right and the left to stop try to tell us what to do all the time.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        @jr
        We would love to stop telling you what to do, except you keep asking us to do things for you like respect your property rights and adjudicate and enforce your contracts.

        And we agree to do this, but only upon certain conditions, some of which involve telling you what to do.

        You see, we also have the power to say no.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to Stillwater
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        says:

        The deliverables are weak sauce to the conditions. There is no power.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        LWA,

        OK, but most political theories assert that they have a universal constituency- that adoption of conservative policies will, for instance, result a rising tide for all boats, or that New Deal liberalism benefits even the rich who are taxed progressively.

        Yeah, I think you’re right about that. Austerity types like to say the same thing. “In the long term, it’s better for all.”

        I guess the answer is this: I think Jason is making a pretty narrow point about libertarianism-schisms, one being that the role of mores is valued by or conceded to more by one group than another. Classical liberals think mores matter when it comes to not only policy implementation but principle-acceptance as well. Certain groups of more orthodox libertarians think they don’t. That’s an interesting issue for libertarians to ponder. How will it all shake out? It’s interesting to watch. More popcorn?

        But I think Jason’s argument, or point (whatever), is important for liberals and conservatives and other ismatists as well. Mores constitute the fabric upon which certain rules are overlayed. For pragmatic reasons, paying attention to the fabric matters when it comes to implementation. But for reasons of “respecting others”, that same fabric might matter as well. EG, if I think an aggressive progressive tax funding redistribution will actually increase the long-term income of the person being progressively taxed, then I need to articulate to him or her why that’s so. I need to change the norms, so to speak, under which that person is currently operating. Or maybe not, I guess.

        I dunno, tho. I mean, I’m inclined to agree with Jason on this. Certainly on ceteris paribus conditions.Report

      • Avatar LWA in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        @Stillwater
        I agree, which is why I used the word constituent- it implies that they are a stakeholder, and have a recognized interest in the discussion.

        And my response to JR wasn’t just snark- everyone is a stakeholder, and everyone’s participation is necessary. “Lets all just do our own thing” doesn’t work when everyone needs to conform to a single norm, such as respect for property rights.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        LWA,

        I resist the idea that a constituent is a stakeholder in the way you’re articulating. A citizen is a stakeholder in that way, but that gets us closer to the view that Jason is referring to the general public and not a partisan-based constituency.

        That’s just my take on it, tho. FWIW and all.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        LWA,

        Or this. If the argument is that my view of a constituency includes people who don’t identify as members of the constituent group, then it makes little sense to say that they are “constituents”, yes? I mean, I can think of them that way, but if they say they aren’t, and act like they aren’t, then they pretty much aren’t.

        I mean, I get that thinking of a diagram where people who would otherwise oppose having to act in a certain are compelled to do so way will see their outcomes improved according to certain metrics is evidence that those folks are “part of the constituency”. But that sorta makes a travesty of the concept of “being a constituent”, no?Report

  5. Avatar Jim Heffman
    Ignored
    says:

    Jason claims that mores and preferences are the same thing, and then criticizes libertarians for being hypocrites when they say that they don’t care about mores.

    He seems to miss the fact that when libertarians say they don’t care about mores, it’s because they’ve seen example after example where someone’s Clearly Objective Mores turn out to be entirely based on their preferences.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jim Heffman
      Ignored
      says:

      Well, then he isn’t incoherent at all since the preference to exclude preferences from libertarian thought is a preference.

      See, this stuff doesn’t have to happen at the same level of analysis. Folks have known for a long time that there are first order preferences and second order preferences that apply to the first order, and so on. If you don’t have some sorta type theory, then a theory is incoherent all the way down. The trick is to try to eliminate the cascading hierarchy of types. Which is where we get to all too often here at the LoOG.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman
      Ignored
      says:

      When I had this argument before, my point was that it seems to me that ethics/mores are preferences in denial.

      But if you think about that for too long, it takes you to some weird places.

      So it’s probably best to not dwell on it.Report

  6. Avatar zic
    Ignored
    says:

    So today, a friend shared a video on Facebook, she thought it wonderful. It’s a small child, probably about 18 months old, standing in a kitchen, and listening to tinny worship music played over a computer speaker, dancing with her hands upraised, in worship.

    Now dancing is what people do. Babies here rhythm, and tend to move to it. How they move? Often, that’s mores. It’s what they see others do. I’ve seen babies about the same age watching the Robert Palmer’s video, “Simply Irresistible,” also doing their best to copy what they’re seeing.

    That’s mores. It’s when those of you who are practicing attorneys get dressed in the a.m. before court, and put out a suit (probably a shade of gray) and an expensive silk tie (probably makes your eyes look bright and your skin healthy). I mean, you could go to court wearing a bright blue suit or a pink suit or jeans and a flannel shirt, no? But there are standards to here, there are mores.

    They infuse us, from the time we’re small babies to the day we die. Some are good; they make lawyers look professional and keep tailors employed altering expensive suits to fit ever-expanding waistlines. Some are not so good, like the impulse to give more credence to James resume, even though it’s not much different from Jane’s or Jamal’s. Most of the time, like that baby holding her arms up to the heavens as she dances, we just presume that’s the way things are and never even question it.

    So like I said in Jason’s original post, failure to recognize this, and the coercion that it sometimes hides, strikes me as exceedingly autistic, totally oblivious to the social forces that create coercion for some people. This also explains why, in general, most women aren’t really all that interested in libertarianism; they’ve swum upstream against the coercion of mores.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to zic
      Ignored
      says:

      Zic, I don’t think that the choice is between the coercion of mores and the lack thereof, but in the choice between mores that we’re going to be leaning on.

      Which would you rather have the children dancing to, if you had to pick something to be playing around the time that your kiddo might be inspired to start dancing?Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        You’re still missing the point — it’s not that mores are either good or bad, it’s that some mores are or can be coercive.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        I’d say that *ALL* of them are. It’s just that the mores we agree with don’t feel coercive because we’re part of the proverbial problem.

        Which mores do we want? What do we want to try to coerce?Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        @jaybird, recognizing the point of coercion seems the important thing. For instance, the more of avoiding an unwanted pregnancy has many permutations that have profoundly shaped (and coerced) women’s lives; leading to all sorts of coercion. The results of unplanned pregnancies to all sorts of coercion; my mother’s marriage, for example, when she was 15.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        The types of coercion are probably as varied as the interests. If the primary interest is the status quo, coercion will probably look one way. If the primary interest is in progress, coercion will probably look another. If the primary interest is society at large, one way. The individual, another.

        What’s our end? Is it the rights of the individual? What are the best forms of coercion to push for that sort of thing?

        An attitude of “that’s none of your business what other people do!” seems to me to be something that we could adopt as a motto. (On the plus side, it seems like it’d help with abortion and LGBTQQIIAA issues on top of that.)Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to zic
      Ignored
      says:

      This is conversation about mores and coercion is interesting, but it is completely tangential to Jason’s point. By my reading at least, he is making a largely descriptive argument that the particular set of mores in place in any society matter when contemplating when any particular political philosophy can be successfully implemented in that society.

      If anything, Jason is making a version of your point to more doctrinaire libertarians.Report

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