Political Philosophy Is About Norms, Not Freedom
Aug01
Philosophy

Political Philosophy Is About Norms, Not Freedom

A few years back there was a debate about “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism. The question was, should libertarians be concerned only with coercive restrictions on freedom, particularly from the state, or with softer, subtler, and more organic forms of social pressure as well? At this point the “thin” position was associated with the Right, since the archetypical moral scold was a right-winger, and the “thick” position with the Left, since they wanted to be free from moralization.

Interestingly the partisan valence of this debate has reversed 180º since then, as the Left consolidated its hegemony over popular culture and took over the role of moral scolds. Now we see left liberals taking the line that “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences”, and the Right countering with a “thicker” defense of free speech that takes into account the chilling effect of private norms.

This is a misconceived debate. But if you take “freedom” as the ultimate value of your political philosophy, you’ll inevitably get sucked into it. At that point you can construct a workable philosophy by settling on an unsatisfying and wishy-washy definition of freedom (like Hayek), or maintain the hard line on freedom by adopting a dogmatic philosophy that discards other values.

The problem is, norms are necessary for social life, and norms – almost by definition, and whether organic or coercive – are restrictions on freedom. There’s some number of potential actions available, but due to internal or external pressure people consistently choose one of them. Along certain margins, unthinking conformity like this is required for any cooperation at all. Yes it’s true that some restrictions can expand the range of feasible action if everyone follows them – for example property norms, which allow me to use my property as I see fit without interference provided I do not interfere with anyone else’s. And some people in the liberal tradition have argued for such norms on the ground of “maximum [effective] freedom”. But it’s not clear that liberal norms are in any meaningful sense a maximum, nor is it clear that an actual maximum would be desirable. It is at least conceivable that “maximum freedom” could look very different from a liberal society and be substantially less conducive to human flourishing.

To think of political philosophy in terms of freedom, regardless of how you define it, commits you to judging norms on the basis of form rather than content. A norm is legitimate if it arises non-coercively among a community. Or if it conforms to certain more abstract principles like a generality norm. Or if it passes a legislative body according to a certain process. Or some other criterion. In any case, you can’t judge based on the content of the norms.

But people need to judge norms based on content, at least in the last resort. This seems clear from the first example, where changes in content (i.e. whose norms are being enforced) caused a switch in the meta-level question of the appropriate form (i.e. the definition of freedom). Something similar happened with the question of states rights as the moral hegemony changed hands. We might disparage these switchers as hypocrites, or object-level thinkers. Or we might admit that the meta-level isn’t a good way to judge all normative questions.

Does this cast us back into the abyss of object-level tribalism? The point of judging based on form rather than content is to avoid irreconcilable tribal conflict, and to give us a basis on which to judge between them besides simply “this one’s mine”. If we have to judge the content rather than their form, what basis do we have besides tribalism?

There’s a role here for social science to play. It’s clear enough that certain norms are stunting, norms like “assertive egalitarianism”, or brutal induction rituals, or certain family structures. It’s also clear that certain norms are conducive to human flourishing and cooperation on large scales, like the aforementioned property norm, or a general respect for freedom (though note that this is freedom as a norm alongside others, rather than freedom as a judge of norms). Independently of that, some norms are self-destructive, like piety contests or overcredentialing, and some are self-reinforcing, like market competition. To the extent that social science can tell us which norms fall into which categories, they can inform our sense of what norms are desirable and which aren’t, irrespective of tribalism.

Now, how do you make that criterion self-enforcing? How do you make sure people actually do what the social science says? That’s a tougher question. Since there’s always room for defection in any social game, social science can also tell you exactly how to exploit any particular norm for your own benefit. Maybe the student of human cooperation must be a Straussian in public then, supporting beneficial norms for their own sake rather than for the sake of their effect on cooperation and stability?

Such would be the virtue of a defense of liberalism centered on freedom. And yet, people have figured out how to exploit liberal norms on the basis of its own mythology of freedom, whether they realize this is what they’re doing or not. This being the case, it’s not enough simply to reiterate the value of freedom, as if we could put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. In the last resort, when the inside-perspective defense and the Straussian defense fail, they must be replaced by either a different Straussian defense – such as utilitarianism and efficiency – or a desperate appeal on the basis of the social science to people’s basic desire to cooperate.

I fear we’re already to the latter point, with liberalism teetering on the edge of irretrievability. Then again, the Neoliberal memes are pretty dank.

Neoliberal meme

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economist in New York State with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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