Category Archives: Uncategorized

Interpretive Charity and Heated Debate

I wanted to add to the discussion my co-bloggers have started on discourse norms.

Consider the following sample dialogues

1)
A: “I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B: “I think you’re mistaken about that.  Just as criminal background checks make good sense, so would some sort of red-flag or mental health history screening.  Indeed, since we already use criminal background checks, we could easily combine the two, plus it would help if there weren’t easy ways to circumvent the background checks.”

2)
A: “ I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B*: “That’s outrageous.  You think guns are more important than kids’ lives?”

3)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B: “I disagree.  I am not depending on any particular religious doctrine when I claim that human life begins at conception. It’s a developmental spectrum, there are no sharp dividing lines, so if we don’t respect the new life that the pregnancy represents as early as possible, it’s a slippery slope.  As to the reasons why women might want to terminate, sure, if there’s a legitimate medical rationale that the mother’s life is in jeopardy, I can see that, but I think a lot of what you’re calling psychological reasons could be addressed through counseling, spiritual or secular.”

4)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B*: “That’s outrageous. You think it’s ok to murder babies to preserve some illusion of women’s autonomy?”

————————

You may have noticed that dialogues (1) and (3) read very differently than (2) and (4).   That’s because in (1) and (3), the B character is responding to the A character’s arguments with different arguments.   In (2) and (4), the B* character does not actually engage with A’s arguments at all, but goes right for “baby-killer.”   Regardless of your view on either abortion or gun control, you should be able to see that in (2) and (4), B* is not arguing in a rational way, whereas B is arguing rationally in (1) and (3).   Does A actually hold the position that B* alleges?  Almost certainly not.  This is commonly known as the “straw man” fallacy; in this case augmented by an emotional appeal.  We know this because in the other pair of dialogues, B is offering actual counter-arguments. 

Why does this matter?   Because when people argue about these things, they have two sorts of objectives.  One is changing the mind of the other person, or perhaps onlookers.  The other is changing public policy.   But neither of these goals will be served with arguments that do not engage their opponents.  It’s totally implausible that A will respond to B* with “oh goodness, I didn’t realize I was advocating baby-killing, I hereby change my position.”  What happens instead is the discussion goes nowhere.

Sometimes we just get angry at people who disagree with us, and we are bewildered that others don’t see things our way.  But we should resist the temptation to straw-man.  If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to argue with people, you’re certainly not required to do so.  But if you do think it’s worth arguing about, then your objectives will be better served with interpretive charity.  What actually is the other person’s position, and why?  Why do they think your position is wrong?  Is there something that might be common ground?  Are you talking past each other?  Are you sure that your position is informed by facts and logic?  Do you have any talking points that might be misinformed?

Sometimes we never resolve disagreements on highly controversial issues.  But if you hope to get anywhere, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Once more, against moralism in community

Legal moralists worry about the degradation of social norms and community connections. Their worry is that immorality tears at the “fabric of society” where that “fabric,” presumably, is the system of moral beliefs held in common by most people in the community.  Legal moralists are thus happy to impose their own moral views on others with the power of government—they think that this must be done if the norms (and moral beliefs commonly held) are threatened. 

In their willingness to use government power to impose their views of morality, moralists ignore the fact that when a government is empowered to force people to act in certain ways, that power crowds out the ability of individuals to interact freely with one another. That is a problem for their view because if individuals can’t freely choose to act in ways others (including the moralists) think is bad, they also can’t freely choose to act in ways others (again, including the moralists) think is good.  The problem for the moralist, then, is that you can’t have a morally good community if people can’t choose freely—you could at best have a simulacrum of such, more like a collection of automatons than a community of persons.  A morally good community is an association of moral beings—beings that choose for themselves—who (often) freely choose the good.  Putting this a different way, the moralist has to believe you can have a community made top down, forced upon members who are free, but that is impossible.  Community thus has to be made bottom-up; community is made by the individuals within it choosing to interact well together.

This applies, by the way, regardless of the level or size of community.  A condo or homeowners association, for example, can’t be made into a genuine community by fiat—even if those trying to do so take themselves to know (or actually do know!) what is best for everyone.  It simply cannot work—or rather cannot work unless everyone in the group agrees—in which case, it is not top down after all.  

To be clear: if you want to start a genuine community, do so only with people who already agree with you.  (Like, but not necessarily as rigid as, a cult.)  I’d add that if you want the community to remain a community, you’ll need a way to guarantee that all who enter it agree with you in advance.  (Again, like, but not necessarily as rigid as, a cult.) Otherwise, you’ll face opposition from some of the newcomers—different ideas about what the community should be.  And those ideas from newcomers (at least those who enter justly), will have just as much claim to be legitimate as yours.  Denying that entails not community, but moralist dictatorship.

Misleading Mill Meme Makes Muddled Minds

Going around the internet recently is a photo of a sign quoting John Stuart Mill “Landlords Get Rich In Their Sleep.”  The sign is apparently in a bank, suggesting that the bank thinks it would be a good idea for you to get a loan enabling you to own property, but the meme seems intended to criticize the idea that being a landlord is a good thing, by supplying the passage from Principles of Political Economy from which the quote is ostensibly drawn.   The meme creator has posted the following: “Landlords grow rich in their sleep without working, risking or economizing.  The increase in the value of the land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title.”  But that’s not quite what Mill says.  The meme cites Book V, chapter 2, section 5 as the source.  The first sentence in the meme is mostly accurate, but the second sentence is not in the text at all.

Mill is arguing in this section that it is not improper to tax landlords, because the value of land to which they have title accrues in value without them having to do anything.  “Suppose that there is a kind of income which constantly tends to increase, without any exertion or sacrifice on the part of the owners….  In such a case it would be no violation of the principles on which private property is grounded, if the state should appropriate this increase of wealth, or part of it, as it arises….  Now this is actually the case with rent.”  Mill is certainly not saying, as the meme implies, that landlords aren’t entitled to rents, only that it’s not unjust to tax them on rents.

But there’s a different level on which the meme is wrong-headed, and wrong to conscript Mill into its purpose.  The word “landlord” had a slightly different meaning in the 1840s than it does today.  Landlords used to be literal lords, who had title to lands on the basis of royal privilege.  While it might be fair to characterize them as not working or taking risks, it’s certainly false in today’s context.  While we continue to use the same word, landlords of today aren’t literal lords, just regular people who own properties from which they can derive rental income.  This very obviously does involve work and risk.  Mid-19th-century objections to aristocratic landlordism do not tell us anything about today’s rental market, nor do they undermine the reality of the work and risk a property owner of today must incur, and without which there’d be an even greater housing shortage.  Apartment buildings don’t grow on trees.

No, Maus Wasn’t Banned by a Tennessee School Board.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the decision of the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee to remove Maus from its 8th Grade ELA curriculum. Much of this discussion has focused on the claim that Board has “banned” Maus from the school; this had led some to claim that the Board did so in to move away from teaching about the Holocaust.

Fortunately, we can assess these claims easily as the transcript of the Board meeting is available online.

One of the Board members did state that the Board was considering banning Maus. (This same Board member was also skeptical that removing the text was appropriate, noting both that he was concerned about the removal based on “a few words”, and that he had read the background on this author and the series, talked to some educators, and it is a highly critically acclaimed and a well reviewed series and book context”.) But what was actually under discussion was not the removal of Maus from the school, but its removal as an anchor text in a module on the Holocaust.

The reasons for this had nothing to do with objections to teaching the Holocaust. Indeed, several Board members stated how important it was for students to learn about it, noting that the module on the Holocaust involved students reading “news articles from BBC, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, survivor stories, and excerpts from other books….. [and] There is even a section where we go to the Jewish Virtual Library and look at some selections from that.” The concern was primarily about the “objectionable” language used in the book–words that “if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined, and rightfully so”. Secondary concerns included the presence of a nude picture–of a female mouse!–the fact that some of the objectionable language involved a boy “cussing out” his father, which wasn’t respectful, and that the author Art Spiegelman had drawn illustrations for Playboy (!).

Possible solutions short of removing the book were suggested–such as whiting out the offensive words completely (deemed a violation of copyright, and so unacceptable), whiting them out partially (but then the kinds could guess them!) and writing to Spiegelman to ask if their removal would be permissible (that would take too long). After canvassing the possibilities the Board decided that despite the merits of Maus (one Board member said she would still teach it to her children) since the language it contained violated the speech code of the school it should be removed from the curriculum.

Note that all that was decided was that Maus should be removed from the curriculum. The Board members didn’t vote to remove the text from the school. Maus wasn’t banned.

Was this a good decision? In my view, no. Against the horrors of the Holocaust a few “damns” don’t mean a damn. But from the perspective of the Board members the “cussing” was clearly extremely offensive–and ancillary to the main message of Maus. And they couldn’t find a way to keep Maus without the wording that violated the speech code to which they required students to adhere. This wasn’t a good decision, but it wass an understandable one.

More understandable, in fact, than claiming falsely that Maus was banned because of the putative far-right sympathies of the McMinn County Board of Education.

Structural Racism and Individual Choice

A story this week in the New York Times about the Minneapolis school district raised some interesting questions about racism, liberalism, and individualism.  The story explains how Minneapolis school officials “assigned families to new school zones, redrawing boundaries to take socioeconomic diversity — and as a consequence, racial diversity — into account.”  This is in response to legitimate concerns that Minneapolis, described in the story as “among the most segregated school districts in the country,” has tangible gaps in academic performance by race.  “Research shows that de facto school segregation is one major reason that America’s education system is so unequal, and that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools can benefit all students.” 

The article elaborates on the problem: “Research has shown that integration can deliver benefits for all children.  For example, Black children exposed to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education experienced higher educational achievement, higher annual earnings as adults, a lower likelihood of incarceration and better health outcomes, according to longitudinal work by the economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley. The gains came at no cost to the educational achievement of white students.  Other research has documented how racially and economically diverse schools can benefit all students, including white children, by reducing biases and promoting skills like critical thinking.  Racially segregated schools, on the other hand, are associated with larger gaps in student performance, because they tend to concentrate students of color in high poverty environments, according to a recent paper analyzing all public school districts.”

So the plan is to increase integration, not necessarily by bussing black students to predominantly white schools, but by bussing white students to predominantly black schools.  Predictably, not every family is enthusiastic about this.  But what I found interesting about the story is that it highlights the ways in which a structure can have outcomes that are racist even if individual actors within that structure aren’t racists.   Many people bristle at the terms “structural racism” or “institutional racism” because they take them to imply that individual actors are racists.  People who use these terms typically don’t mean to imply this (though some do), but this distinction can get lost in the shuffle.  One specific anecdote in the article is helpful here.

Heather Wulfsberg, of Minnetonka, had her daughter reassigned to North High School.  She appealed this decision, but let’s see why.  Wulfsberg, “who is white, had intended to send her daughter, Isabella, 14, to Southwest High, a racially diverse but majority white public school that is a 10-minute bus ride from their home.  The school offers an international baccalaureate program, as well as Japanese, which Isabella studied in middle school. Isabella’s older brother, 18, is a senior there, and Ms. Wulfsberg envisioned her children attending together, her son helping Isabella navigate freshman year. So Ms. Wulfsberg appealed the reassignment to North, citing her son’s attendance at Southwest, and her daughter’s interest in Japanese. (North offers one language, Spanish.)  She was also concerned about transportation. There was no direct bus, and Isabella’s commute could take up to 55 minutes. She would also have to walk from the bus stop to school through an area where frequent gun shots are a problem.”

If Wulfsberg had said something like “I can’t bear the thought of my daughter going to a majority-black school,” it would be clear these are unsupportable reasons.  But the preceding paragraph gives all perfectly legitimate reasons.  Isabella can’t continue learning her language.  She would spend 2 hours a day on the bus.  Is it reasonable to force Heather to do that to Isabella?  I don’t see that it is.  And Heather didn’t either, so Isabella is going to private school.  On the community Facebook page, Heather was called a racist.  ““They were like, ‘Your cover is, you want academics for your kids, and underneath this all, you really are racist,’” she recalled. “It’s a very scary feeling to do a self-examination of yourself and think, ‘Am I?’”  She paused, reflecting. “But I don’t believe I am. I really don’t.””

I have no idea whether she is or not, but she certainly can’t be called a racist for the reasons given here.  So in this case, the parents in the community Facebook group were in fact using something about structural racism as a personal accusation, precisely what the coining of the term was meant to avoid.

It’s possible of course that both (a) the evolution of American public schooling has been heavily influenced by racism and yields outcomes that are demonstrably unequal and (b) parents like Heather aren’t motivated by racism at all.  But then we’re stuck with a conundrum: what’s the fix for (a)?  If the answer is “Isabella’s good must be sacrificed for the greater good of helping ameliorate racial inequality in schools,” you’re certainly in for rough time getting Heather to agree.  Another approach might be systemic: since the outcome problems are systemic, it wouldn’t be crazy to think the solution would be systemic as well.  The anarchist response “don’t have public schools at all” is probably correct, but politically unfeasible.  But even if we have public schools, there’s no reason they have to be structured the way they are.  One reason for the disparity in schools is that in most districts, local property taxes pay for the schools, so wealthier suburbs have better schools than poorer areas (this affects poor white areas too of course).  So maybe don’t tie school funding to local property taxes.  Or maybe don’t have school districts be drawn like Checkpoint Charlie.   Any rigidly drawn district would have some families living at its fringes – why prohibit those kids from attending school in the next district?  The classic pro-choice argument is: figure out what the state government spends per pupil, and then give that money to the families to spend on whichever school they think is best, public or private.  This would eliminate geography-based funding discrepancies.   We address the problem of people not being able to afford food not by having state-run farms and grocery stores, but by giving people money for food.  Why not give them money for school?

Objectivity, Rigor… and Irony.

Back in September the Urban Institute published a ‘blog post arguing that “Equitable Research Requires Questioning the Status Quo”. The author—Lauren Farrell—argued that both “objectivity” and “rigor” were “harmful research practices” that should be rectified.

Not surprisingly, this has generated a flurry of responses from persons with more conservative leanings eager to defend “objectivity” and “rigor” in research. Also not surprisingly, some of these responses have been hyperbolic. Writing for Persuasion, Zaid Jilani claimed that these claims were “emblematic of the struggle between truth and social justice that is taking place across many left-leaning institutions in the United States.”

There’s a certain irony to this response to Farrell’s argument, for in their rush to defend objectivity and rigor many of their putative proponents have abandoned both.

Farrell writes that an appeal to objectivity

“…allows researchers, intentions aside, to define themselves as experts without learning from people with lived experience.  Objectivity also gives researchers grounds to claim they have no motives or biases in their work. Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism permeate US institutions and systems, which, in turn, allows for research that reproduces or creats racist stereotypes and reinforces societal power differences between who generates information… and who is a subject…”

With respect to rigor, she writes that

“…researchers often define rigor as following an established research protocol meticulously instead of ensuring data are contextualized and grounded in community experience”. This understanding of rigor, she holds, “does not guarantee trustworthiness or accuracy.”

It might be that some of Farrell’s critics have been “triggered” by her use of certain words (“objectivity”, “rigor”) without paying attention to how she is using them or her intended message. If these terms are removed, Farrell’s claims become utterly anodyne. To paraphrase:

“…researchers should not define themselves as experts without learning from people who have direct experience of the subject the researchers are studying. They should recognize that their work might be motivated by pretheoretic commitments or be biased in some way…” 

And

“…researchers should recognize that established research protocols might not lead to results that are trustworthy or accurate unless the data that they gather are placed in proper context and accurately reflect the experiences of the persons who are the subjects of research.”

But these claims shouldn’t be controversial. Consider how they’d apply to Nancy MacLean’s much criticized work Democracy in Chains. (MacLean argues, in brief, that James Buchanan and public choice theory was at the heart of a stealthy conspiracy funded by the Koch Brothers to protect the privilege of rich white men.) For Farrell, MacLean should not have defined herself as an expert in this area without learning from people who knew and worked with Buchanan to ensure that she was getting her facts right. She should also recognize that her interpretation of documents and events might be biased by her ideological antipathy to libertarianism—and taken pains to correct this. And she also should have recognized that despite her extensive documentation of her sources her adherence to this established research protocol of her discipline (history) is no guarantee that her work will be trustworthy or accurate unless her data is placed in proper context and reflects the experiences of those who are the subject of her research.

But isn’t the problem with Democracy in Chains that MacLean failed to be objective and rigorous? If so, how could her methodological failures support Farrell’s rejection of “objectivity” and “rigor”? The answer is simple. Although Farrell takes herself to be rejecting “objectivity” and “rigor” what she is really arguing against are appeals to these values that mask poor research methodology.

To be sure, she should have been clearer about this. But to rush to condemn her for rejecting “truth” in favor of “social justice” on the basis of this ‘blog post is to commit the very errors in research that she decries.

Regressive Regulations and structural racism

The CDC released data last month showing how women fled NYC at the height of the pandemic to give birth, largely as a reaction to fear of overwhelmed hospitals as well as restrictive birthing policies.

What’s interesting about the data, from my perspective, is how clearly it demonstrates that it’s those with wealth who can avoid the limitations regulations create. New York State has regulated birth centers out of existence, largely through the burdensome and outdated Certificate of Need (CON) process, resulting in fewer options for precisely those people who can’t buy themselves out of these limitations.

Predictably, from the CDC data, white women were most likely to successfully escape the city. Black and Hispanic women were left behind, likely as a result of less flexible employment and fewer financial resources overall. Meanwhile, at the same time women downstate were desperate to find safe places to give birth during a pandemic, New York was prosecuting midwives who served an upstate maternity desert of low-income Mennonite women. The absurdity of the entire situation should be obvious, but in reality it demonstrates one of the primary ways in which regulations have regressive effects.

Certified professional midwives, licensed in 35 other states, are illegal in New York. As a group they tend to serve underserved communities, including low-income rural communities and communities of color. So when low-income New Yorkers looked around for out-of-hospital birthing options during a global pandemic it turns out they couldn’t find any, not because of a market failure, but because of simple and obvious government failure.

There’s a broader lesson here for classical liberals. Most people acknowledge that classical liberalism has a diversity problem, but it’s been hard to know what to do about it. I think one clear way libertarians and classical liberals can appeal more strongly to diverse populations, including women and people of color, is by emphasizing the way government regulations overwhelmingly harm the most vulnerable among us. While there’s been a lot of work done in this area in terms of criminal justice reform, the drug war, and immigration, women’s issues haven’t yet really gotten as much attention. And regulation in particular is still often discussed as an efficiency issue rather than a justice issue. Yet government-imposed barriers place real and disparate burdens on women and communities of color, creating serious impediments to accessing diverse providers on the one hand and wealth building among would-be entrepreneurs on the other.

Afghanistan and sovereignty

The US administration has justified the withdrawal from Afghanistan by saying that the United States should not fight a civil war in another country. That war should be fought, they think, by the people themselves, not by a foreign power. Both Democrats and Republicans share this view, as apparently does the general public. Critics of the withdrawal object to the way the withdrawal was implemented, not to the withdrawal itself. They blast the failure of the government to evacuate Americans and others before withdrawal. But, all seem to agree, withdrawing is the right decision. The underlying idea seems to be that Afghanistan is a sovereign country, and that once the Al Qaeda terrorist threat was neutralized, the United States had no business remaining there. Afghan political problems should be solved by Afghans.

I think this is the wrong way to look at this tragedy. I will state my dissent in the starkest possible form: Afghanistan has no business being a sovereign state. If the only possible outcome of the political process is the rule of the Taliban, then the country is not a legitimate state, because the Taliban, one of the worst regimes of recent times, is not entitled to rule. I hope I don’t need to document what we can expect of Taliban rule. The Taliban will kill, torture, and terrorize everyone, women in particular. Saying that these atrocities are an incident of sovereignty or self-determination is too grotesque to be taken seriously. This is true even if the Taliban allows all Americans and others to safely evacuate, and even if Afghanistan (improbably) does not allow anti-Western terrorists to operate in its territory. For the focus is not us but them, the Afghans, who will be killed, tortured, and terrorized by these monsters.

What solution then? If the so-called international community is serious about human rights and human security, then it should send an international force, defeat the Taliban, and set up an international administration to rule the country in accordance with minimal international standards, as long as necessary, forever if need be.  The mistake of the US intervention is not that the United States was disrespectful of Afghan sovereignty. The mistake is that the United States was too respectful of Afghan sovereignty.

The Shaky Pullout from Afghanistan

Joe Biden is on track to do what his two predecessors failed to do: get out of Afghanistan. They failed to achieve this goal due to the worsening security situation and the incapacity of the Afghan forces to take over. After many more years and countless billions spent, it is still unclear that the Afghan National Army (ANA) has the capacity to keep the Taliban from taking over more territory, let alone maintaining control of the capitol. As recently as March, John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said “the Afghan government’s fears for its survival are only exacerbated by the knowledge of how dependent their country is on foreign military and financial support. If the goal of the reconstruction effort was to build a strong, stable, self-reliant Afghan state that could protect our national security interests as well as its own—it is a mission yet to be accomplished.

According to Biden, however, that is not the American goal. They did not intend, despite 20 years of evidence, to “nation-build” in Afghanistan. Their goals were 1) “get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11” 2) “deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden” and 3) “degrade the terrorist threat” to reduce the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a base for terrorist organizations in the future. If these were the goals, they were arguably achieved by May of 2011 when President Barack Obama ordered the successful strike against Bin Laden. 

There is a possibility Obama, or perhaps President Donald Trump would have had to reopen the mission, as Obama did in Iraq in 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) spread across the globe . If that were the case, they would have to remain to this day as the threat from IS Khorasan in the country, let alone the region, remains significant.

Instead, Biden decided to honor the deal struck between Trump’s Administration and the Taliban to completely remove the US presence from the country, albeit on a slightly slower timeline. And what was the reasoning? He determined it is not in the “national interest of the United States of America to continue fighting this war indefinitely.”

He has a point. If the mission has yet to be completed after 20 years, it won’t be completed without a big change within the foreseeable future. Furthermore, he had a front row seat to Obama’s failure to end the war using a troop surge. Is this, therefore, the least worst option?

The truth is we don’t really know. Biden didn’t engage in a long, involved discussion outside of his administration—except to consult with former Presidents Bush and Obama. There wasn’t even much discussion with Congress before he announced he would completely withdraw troops. Even after months, there remained a lack of clarity about the merits of the withdrawal. If the pull-out from Bagram Air Base is any indication, there is nothing orderly, well-thought through, or well-executed about the withdrawal. After 20 years, countless public embarrassments due to poor policy planning, no way to achieve victory, and a great risk to security from instability in that country, shouldn’t the administration take more time to have a serious and perhaps a public discussion about how to bring this war to a close? Shouldn’t members of Congress push the administration to engage in this deliberation? Shouldn’t the public?

The fact is, the Taliban is salivating over this result and using it to demonstrate that they have achieved their mission: remove the imperial power from their state and reassert their control.

But Biden is resolute. He claims he “will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.

As I demonstrate in a recent article discussing 10 criteria for successful deliberations about military policy, an effective way to avoid implementing haphazard policy is to engage in thoughtful discussions in order to effectively achieve well-articulated goals. Instead, what we see from this administration is what we’ve seen throughout the War on Terror: policy that looks reactionary and poorly developed because it is.

Slogans and Wars

Activists like slogans, and some slogans are accurate, but philosophical positions are often too nuanced to be captured in a bumper-sticker-length slogan.   So in several recent online discussions in which I’ve attempted to explain why Israel is justified in responding to attacks by Hamas, I’ve encountered people saying that because they’re libertarian, they are anti-war, and therefore I must be a bad libertarian.  That’s wrong, and one reason it goes wrong has to do philosophy’s resistance to bumper-sticker sloganeering.

To begin with, saying “war is unjust” is some kind of category error, along the lines of saying “physical force is unjust.”  Wait, the bumper-sticker objects, I thought libertarians were opposed to physical force.  This move elides the moral significance of the distinction between the use of force in aggression and the use of force in defense.  If Bob starts hitting Bill and Bill hits Bob back, they’re both using physical force.  But that doesn’t make them morally equivalent, and this shows why it’s a conceptual mistake to say that “hitting is unjust”: if Bob’s hitting is unjust (aggression), then Bill’s hitting is just (defense).   “Hitting” alone isn’t just or unjust, until we know who is committing aggression, the initiation of force, to violate someone’s rights, and who is using force defensively, to protect their rights.  Libertarianism isn’t about hitting, it’s about rights.  Similarly, saying “war is unjust” misses the important distinction between aggression and defense.  If Sylvania invades Freedonia, say because the former wants to annex the latter to obtain raw materials, Sylvania’s action is unjust.  But that implies that Freedonia’s use of arms to repel the unjust invasion is just.  So the question “is this war just?” is poorly formed.  It’s unjust for the one to have attacked, and (therefore!) just for the other to respond.

Of course, there are complicating variables, so it’s sometimes harder than it first appears to assess justice.  (See my “War and Liberty,” Reason Papers 26, Spring 2006; can’t hyperlink for some reason but it is online.)  But the point I’m making here is that the slogan doesn’t even come close to capturing the variables.   At this point in the argument, someone objects that because there may be harm to innocents, the analogy from Bob and Bill to Sylvania and Freedonia doesn’t work.  But it’s not that the analogy doesn’t work, it’s that there are other factors to be added to the evaluation.  The analogy works in skeletal form – an unjust aggression may be justly opposed – but it’s true that military action carries increased risk of harm to innocents.  This isn’t a particularly novel observation, though, nor is it something that only a libertarian would think of.  It’s been a principle of ethical theory about warfare for centuries.  So it’s true that assessing the morality of a conflict has to involve the degree to which both parties take care to minimize harm to noncombatants.  But here too, the moral assessment is not unitary: if Sylvania is indiscriminate in attacking but Freedonia avoids targeting civilians, we’d say “Sylvania is fighting unjustly” and also “Freedonia is fighting justly.”

Another objection that is largely a red herring is to note that it’s states that go to war, and the fighting is thus subsidized by involuntarily-collected taxes.  I certainly agree that states shouldn’t do this.   But not everything that a state does is illegitimate per se.  There are state activities that would be morally legitimate if not done by the state, so it’s only that the state is doing them that makes them bad.  If it’s already bad, then it’s bad for the state to do it (for example, private citizens owning slaves is morally wrong, so for the state to enslave people is also wrong).  But if it’s morally permissible to do a thing, then the wrongness of the state doing it comes from libertarian objections about the nature of state activity.  For example, the occupation of firefighter is morally legitimate, so to complain about state-run fire departments is not to object to firefighting per se, but to the scope of state power.  (See also: teaching.)  So the fact that states engage in macro-level self defense is not wrong because defending yourself is wrong, but because of some theory about the proper scope of state power.  But while we’re arguing about the proper theory of the scope of state power, firefighters are doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when they go put out fires.  And Freedonia’s army is doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when it  repels Sylvania’s invasion.

Sylvania, of course, is doing something wrong: invading Freedonia.  This aggression would be wrong even if it were some non-state entity – it is just like Bob’s attack on Bill.  Bob is wrong to attack Bill.  Sylvania is wrong to invade Freedonia.  Bill is right to fight back; Freedonia is right to fight back.

Now to the extent that the “I’m anti-war” sloganeering is useful, it’s going to be useful in places like Sylvania: making the argument that aggression is unjust, that launching a war is wasteful of resources, that attacks like this are callous about human life.  Libertarians in Sylvania ought to make it clear to their leaders that they oppose the war.  But Freedonians, even libertarian Freedonians, are not bound to say “we should stop fighting”; they have the right to defend themselves.  Remember, just because Bill is a peace-loving person doesn’t mean Bob won’t attack him.  Similarly, a society that eschews aggression may nevertheless find itself attacked.  Some of the people I’ve argued with about this will point out the number of times the US has engaged in warfare that couldn’t plausibly be described as self-defense, as if this were some sort of “gotcha” moment that proves I’m bad at libertarianing.  But this is to confuse history and philosophy.  I’m perfectly aware that the US has acted badly in the past.  But that doesn’t imply that it’s always in the wrong, and more to the point, it doesn’t disprove the normative argument about the legitimacy of self-defense.   So we often end up with something like:
Me: People have a right to defend themselves when attacked.
Other person: Tommy is an aggressive bully.  Carl often starts fights.
Me: ???

Maybe this would fit on a bumper sticker: We should oppose starting wars, but we are not obligated to eschew self-defense.