The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Meh

Progress and decline are just stories, but so is volatility. We like linearity, but we also like for things to have a shape, even if an awkward bendy one.

If you enter into the moral history of Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy, or the people at, it seems obvious that we have made progress.  Even with the fluctuations of the last 15 years, food prices have plummeted over the past 100 years! We’ve cured so many diseases! For crying out loud, I am writing the post in an interface of a program running on a computer in a location I don’t even know, to be put out in public where a significant fraction of the global population can access it from any part of the world!

Yet for a certain set of people, it’s equally as obvious that we’re in decline. Some agree that we’ve made progress, but think it is a false progress—it rests on the back of exploitation of third world countries. Or maybe the Green Revolution helped us feed more people with fewer crop failures, but it uses practices that are not as time-tested, and probably aren’t sustainable. So we’re feeding more people now while setting ourselves up for a massive failure, and therefore mass starvation, at some stage in the uncertain future.

I think that McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity does a good job demolishing the notion that our prosperity rests on the continued poverty of others, and it is not alone in that. But if there’s one solid thing I took away from The Great Stagnation, and especially the debates that it sparked, it is that it is incredibly hard to think about progress, decline, and well-being, period.

Cultural conservatives often claim we’re in decline from the point of view of deteriorating values. Roy Baumeister’s book covering his work on willpower makes the claim that the Victorians took self-control much more seriously than we do, and we are the worse for it. More extreme claims of moral decline, are, of course, quite common. MacIntyre’s After Virtue tells you where he stands on the matter in his title. Mencius Moldbug, the pseudonymous prophet of the Internet neoreactionaries, resurrects Carlyle among others to make the claim that we have fallen into complete lawlessness and immorality. He thinks the Victorians eradicated violent crime, but liberal ideology led us to abandon the very values that made such eradication possible.

Consider Baltimore. For those looking through the lens of decline, the writing is on the wall—the barbarians have stormed the gates, they are on the inside, they’re just waiting for the right moment to deliver the final blow to our crumbling civilization. For those looking through the lens of progress, the riots in Baltimore are unfortunate but the peaceful protests, and increased media scrutiny of cop violence there, in New York, and in Ferguson, Missouri all hint at a possibility of important reform. A chance to take a next step in the journey that began with the abolition of slavery, continued through the civil rights movement, and continues to this day, if we who inherited it make ourselves good caretakers.

Can this be resolved by grandma’s conciliatory comment that “everyone is right,” is some sense? Well, I’m in a pessimistic mood, so I’m going to say that everyone is wrong, in the big view.

Progress and decline can be useful lenses, but that’s what they are. They can shed light on certain aspects of the world we live in, but they can never encompass it. The optimist feeling the march of progress will point out how precipitously crime has dropped in this country since the early 90s. The liberal is quick to point out that this is mirrored by an explosion in incarceration. The conservative chuckles, and replies “don’t you see how the one caused the other?” Progress in policing, through Broken Window theories and such like—we are told.

As someone who has defended the wisdom of the ages in the form of our traditions, I have repeatedly been asked how traditionalism could have fostered abolitionism when legal slavery existed in this country. Lately, I ask myself the same question: how would I, personally, have lived with the reality of being in a country with the living institution of slavery? How would I have lived with coming from a middle class family, getting a good education, and generally prospering in such a country?

The best way to answer that question is, of course, to read what people said back then. About the subject, and in general. I have not done this, not really. And shame on me for that. In school, I read some of the debates on the matter that happened in the decade or two prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Civil War is, of course, another one of those great divergent points for various narratives. For most, the Civil War is the war against slavery. For some, it is the patriotic war against the rebel army. For others, it is the War Between the States; one victory among what would be many for centralized power over local communities.

But I digress—the reason I pose the question about being a person on the right side of the slavery question while living in that era is that, for some, that is our present. Oh, it isn’t slavery specifically, of course. But there’s a narrative in which there’s a moral equivalency. To return to incarceration, a frequently repeated statistic in certain corners is that there are more black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850. The liberal and libertarian point out to their chuckling conservative friend that nearly all of this has to do with the so-called war on drugs, the very thing (some would argue) which created circumstances for the late twentieth century spike in crime. Unlike his liberal friend, the libertarian emphasizes the role that public housing has played in creating completely toxic cultural environments. Conservatives like Theodore Dalrymple, in fact, fixate on such cultures and make a career out of writing about them. For Dalrymple, they serve as banner examples of moral decline.

Moreover, the liberal and libertarian will point out that having a controlled, structured engagement with law enforcement, with the credible threat of lawsuits or in any case some consequences for mistreatment, requires resources. The poorer you are, the fewer resources you have to bring to bear. There’s also a cultural element—educated people who have grown up well off tend to have a sense of entitlement, in a bad sense of course but also in the good sense of feeling entitled to having their dignity as a human being respected. They are more likely to be outraged if this expectation is violated, and to have the resources, and the friends and family with resources, to act on that outrage. As such, groups that do not have resources, and who mostly take it for granted that they are going to be mistreated and the abusers will get away with it, are much more vulnerable. Who knows how many of those black men in prison were just an easy target for a cop looking to improve his arrest statistics?

And let’s talk about statistics for a moment. I’m optimistic by disposition, and I am in awe of the dramatic decline in crime rates in my lifetime. But as I mentioned, I’m in a pessimistic mood. Statistics are judgments given the air of objectivity by the fact that they are numbers. “Data”, with its root meaning being “things given,” is highly misleading. To channel Deirdre McCloskey channeling R. D. Laing for a minute, I’d much rather we call it “capta”, or “things seized.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics did not see the givens about rape and sexual assault on college campuses hanging around in the air, much less in their spreadsheets. They used their judgments, informed by best practices among people who study such things, and came at the question as outsiders looking in. They judged that 80% of campus rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, an estimate arrived at through the use of surveys.

Such surveys are not truly random. They can’t be. Randomness is not a thing available to us in this world, when we are dealing with fellow free human beings. If nonresponse is systematic, and not itself random, then the results will be biased. All polling companies deal with this. In the case of elections, they can test their methods against the outcomes to an extent. It must be remembered that only polls very close to the election can be said to be directly tested; the long period before the election where polls purport to show the ups and down of public opinion cannot truly be tested in a similar way.

The conclusions drawn by polling agencies, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and anyone, are not really conclusions, but arguments. The BJS is arguing that rape and sexual assault happen at a lower rate on campuses than among the general population, but have a higher nonreport rate than what is already a very high general nonreport rate. The question is—should we believe them?

The reported rate is one thing. Certainly clerical errors happen in recording such things, but I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that our records for reported sexual assaults are a decent approximation.

As for total sexual assaults; well, that’s a harder judgment to make. I recall in the debates after The Great Stagnation came out that libertarians came out in droves to point out all the flaws and biases in median income and other statistics that Tyler Cowen trotted out as part of his argument. Cowen astutely observed that all of those biases and flaws were still present back when the median income data looked good, too.

So too for sexual assaults. 80% is a big number, but it has the virtue of being a number. For the general population they estimate 67%. To be frank, I don’t put much stock in either number. Maybe they are an exaggeration—certainly there are plenty of narratives saying that the question is overblown these days. Maybe they’re a vast underestimate—a lot of studies outside of BJS make that argument, as do activists in this area. Activists who are caretakers of another liberation, another march of progress.

What if the numbers are completely wrong? What if the bounds of all the surveys and judgment brought to bear on the matter are just bunk? Maybe sexual assaults were at an all time low when reported ones were at an all time high, and we are now seeing an all time high when reported ones are much lower. Maybe it peaked somewhere in the middle. Maybe the highest point was some random year in the 1930s.

I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m inviting you to consider how confident you are in the narrative that you are most attached to.

Because when I’m in a pessimistic mood, the only thing that gives me joy is raining on other people’s parades. Or their rallies.

I do believe the arguments that the Great Enrichment happened, but it gave us progress from a material point of view. I don’t think that the life of a peasant was necessarily morally inferior to ours. Nor do I think that the life of a stockbroker is necessarily morally inferior to a pious medieval peasant.

I’m not sure that I believe there is progress, or decline. But there is life, and living.

Of course, if I was a city dweller during the fall of Rome, I might feel differently. And if I were a poor immigrant who moved to this country and made a living, and saw my children make a better one, I would probably feel differently, too.

They are useful lenses. When applied carefully.

How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach

Paul has written a truly formidable series on the relationship between the capabilities approach and libertarianism, and what the two communities can learn from each other. Fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond has rightfully called it “a true tour de force,” elsewhere proclaiming that Paul may as well have written a whole new section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There is a lot to like about Paul’s series, but you’re not here to read a post kissing his ass, nor would that be useful to him. But you ought to give these a read:

  1. What the capabilities approach is
  2. Why the absolutist bullet-biting libertarian arguments are wrong
  3. What libertarians can learn from the capabilities approach
  4. The genuine insights of libertarianism that the capabilities community can learn from

My critique will be two-fold: first, the capabilities approach cannot give us an answer to Socrates’ crucial question “how are we to live?” Second, in attempting to side-step this question, its proponents cripple their ability to take the political implications of their theory seriously—just like most explicitly libertarian theories.

A bit of cowardly hedging: I am no expert on the capabilities approach. I have not read either Sen or Nussbaum on it. I have listened to an interview with Nussbaum, which was the entirety of my prior exposure. Sweet Talk is a place of conversation—you must imagine that Paul and the rest of us have been sitting around and talking, and Paul has gotten fired up about capabilities and just finishing a long diatribe about it. Within the context of that conversation, this will be my response.

Continue reading “How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach”

What Then Are the Bourgeois Virtues?

What then are the bourgeois virtues? You ask me to preach. I’ll preach to thee.

The leading bourgeois virtue is the Prudence to buy low and sell high. I admit it. There. But it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence—Herbert Hoover, for example, energetically rescuing many Europeans from starvation after 1918.

Another bourgeois virtue is the Temperance to save and accumulate, of course. But it is also the temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer humbly, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here—Eleanor Roosevelt negotiating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

A third is the justice to insist on private property honestly acquired. But it is also the justice to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege, to value people for what they can do rather than for who they are, to view success without envy, making capitalism work since 1776.

A fourth is the Courage to venture on new ways of business. But it is also the courage to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up next morning and face fresh work with cheer, resisting the despairing pessimism of the clerisy 1848 to the present. And so the bourgeoisie can have Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage, the pagan four. Or the Scottish three—Prudence, Temperance, and justice, the artificial virtues—plus enterprise, that is, Courage with another dose of Temperance.

Beyond the pagan virtues is the Love to take care of one’s own, yes. But it is also a bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish well of humankind, to seek God, finding human and transcendent connection in the marketplace in 2006, and in a Scottish benevolence c. 1759.

Another is the Faith to honor one’s community of business. But it is also the faith to build monuments to the glorious past, to sustain traditions of commerce, of learning, of religion, finding identity in Amsterdam and Chicago and Osaka.

Another is the Hope to imagine a better machine. But it is also the hope to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seeing one’s labor as a glorious calling, ing, 1533 to the present. So the bourgeoisie can have Faith, Hope, and Love, these three, the theological virtues.

That is, the bourgeois virtues are merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society. They are not hypothetical. For centuries in Venice and Holland and then in England and Scotland and British North America, then in Belgium, Northern France, the Rhineland, Sydney, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Bombay, Shanghai, and in a widening array of places elsewhere, against hardy traditions of aristocratic and peasant virtues, we have practiced them. We have fallen repeatedly, of course, into bourgeois vices. Sin is original. But we live in a commercial society, most of us, and capitalism is not automatically vicious or sinful. Rather the contrary.

“Bourgeois virtues” is no contradiction. It is the way we live now, mainly, at work, on our good days, and the way we should, Mondays through Fridays.

-Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues

Innovation and Demosclerosis

A common trope among certain observers of China is that “China doesn’t innovate”. They copy, and act as a parts and assembly supplier to Western innovation. This isn’t even false, or unreasonable. China is a developing economy and they have a lot of catching up to do in terms of technology and business methods. Why should they reinvent the wheel when they can just learn how to use the wheels the OECD nations have already invented?

But this situation should not be confused with the idea that the Chinese are not an innovative people. Historically they have a long record of innovation, often inventing things (such as paper, the printing press, and gun powder) hundreds of years before the West had them. Culturally their disdain for the merchant class and centralized government prevented these innovations from being widely adopted, but the innovation was certainly there.

Further, we in the rich west have gotten complacent in some of our fields. Computers and IT are very innovative, but what about education or air travel? What about infrastructure? In 2008 the US Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, requiring passenger rail plans to be developed by States. In California that mandate didn’t even result in a plan to build high-speed rail until 2013, and construction of just Phase 1 (connecting L.A. and San Francisco) isn’t expected to be complete until 2029. Meanwhile during roughly the same time period (2007-Present), China has gone from zero miles of high-speed rail to 10,000 miles of working track. That’s more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined.

Now high-profile infrastructure projects like this always beg the question of whether we should build them, of if they’re worth the money, but that’s not the discussion today. The point is, both the USA and China have already decided they should, but only China did. There are reasons for that related to their comparatively lower labor costs and undeveloped rural countryside, but let’s not make excuses for ourselves. The West has hundreds of years’ head start in development, and all the laws and regulations we’ve collected as a result thereof seem to be holding us back more than they are pushing us forward.

This finally leads me to the real topic of this post (I’m terrible at getting to the point quickly), which is the Broad Sustainable Group of China. Broad Group (for short) has been around for a while now, primarily in the HVAC and air quality business. They make industrial-strength HVAC units, the ones that manage air temperature and humidity for major office buildings, very large apartment buildings, and sports complexes. They’re state of the art, managed in real time from a control center in Broad Town, a company town in Hunan, China of, well, Chinese scale and proportion (that is to say, large).

But what Broad Group is catching attention for these days is building really big buildings, really quickly. In fact, they aren’t built so much as assembled. They’re manufactured in a central factory and then flat-packed and shipped by truck to their destination, like Ikea furniture. All the wires, pipes, lighting, air ducts, etc. are built into the module back at the factory, so the assembly process on site consists of lifting the pieces into place using a construction crane and bolting them together.

The first building I’m aware of that Broad Group has built using their new was during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They built a pavilion there in a single day, but I cannot find a video of that now. Since then they have assembled a 15-story hotel in two days, a 17-story building in two days, a 25-story building in 17 days, a 30-story building in 15 days, and a 57-story building in 19 days. There have been others, but not all of them have been captured on video.

All this construction is leading up to Broad Group’s desire to build Sky City One, a 200-story tower (838-meters, or 2,749 ft, tall) that will be the tallest building in the world when complete. And they want to assemble it in 90 days. That assembly time doesn’t include the time spent at the factory building and assembling the modules, which would be a process of six months to a year, but for comparison the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took five years to build from start to finish.

Now before you start freaking out about safety or quality, take a look at this video of Broad Group simulating one of their buildings being shaken by a Richter Scale 10 earthquake. This seems to be a safe design, and in the six years they’ve been building them I haven’t heard of any of them falling down, burning, or experiencing some other catastrophe. They seems to be taking this side of things seriously.

The Broad Group’s methods convey other benefits besides speedy construction. For one thing, building this way is much safer for the workers, as most of the work is done in the controlled environment of a factory, with industrial robots lending assistance, and not in chaotic construction sites. There’s a lot less waste, clean-up is easier, and basically all the same benefits we saw moving to factory production of our cars, machines, and tools. And most importantly, it’s CHEAPER, which is something I’m sure anyone who’s bought an apartment in Manhattan could appreciate. Building more and better things for less is the sina qua non of economic growth.

This is an innovation that could have happened anywhere in the developed nations. This isn’t cutting edge science, and the engineering is easily within our grasp. But we don’t do things this way. Why? No doubt some architect will tell you a story about how we value our individuality too much, but all the Toyota Camry’s I see driving around belie that hogwash. The truth is that we don’t build things this way because we have forgotten that innovation is something that should happen in every industry, not just “technology” companies like Google and Microsoft. We have allowed the laws around permits and site inspections and zoning to calcify around how buildings were constructed at a certain time in our history, and there progress stopped. Meanwhile in China, without that legacy, innovation marched on. China, in this one field, is now more advanced than the West, as they made a step of progress we could have made – should have made – forty years ago or more.

But all is not lost. Here’s the good news: China has shown it can be done. This is as good a time as any to reflect on the laws we have, and reconsider our approach. Rather than specifying how we build, and send in site inspectors to shut down construction now and then (which is costly), we ought to focus on the results we want (especially around safety and environmental health) and then let innovation bloom again to find better, cheaper, faster ways of meeting those needs. This is how the developed West can ensure that the future happens here too, and not just in China.

Capabilities and Libertarianism Part IV: Libertarianism for Capabilitarians

This is the fourth and final post in a series on why libertarians and adherents of the capabilities approach should engage with one another. In the first post I laid out the basics of the capabilities approach. In second post I criticized common or garden variety libertarianism through a capabilitarian lens. But in the third post I argued that neoclassical liberals already resemble capabilitarians, though there may still be points of discord. In this post, I turn the tables and suggest areas where capabilitarians can learn from libertarianism. It may seem like the neoclassical liberals I have spoken so highly of are hardly libertarian at all. But all of the following talking points are deeply libertarian, and they would all be endorsed by any neoclassical liberal you may encounter in an Ivory Tower corridor.


Everyone groans when a libertarian points out that every little government policy from taxation to lemonade stand regulation is enforced by folks with guns. And they should groan: when people pay their taxes, they’re participating in a social practice that is just expected of them, as close to tipping restaurant servers as to suffering armed robbery; government guns are the furthest things from their minds. And yet it is useful to remember that government programs are ultimately backed up by violent force. We should pause before employing government force to radically alter the shape of people’s lives. This defeasible caution strikes me as consistent with capabilitarian sensitivities. I was thus flabbergasted when I read (Frontiers of Justice) that Martha Nussbaum reckons compulsory youth national service is an excellent policy.

It seems to me that the United States (and other nations) can reap many benefits from [a national youth service program], in addition to the obvious one of getting a lot of this work done by energetic young people at relatively low cost. Young people, both men and women, would learn what this work is like, how important it is, and how difficult; this experience could be expected to shape their attitudes in political debates and in family life. They would also see different parts of the country, different social classes, and one another — something that the abolition of the military draft has made very rare in the experience of most Americans. If national service included a military option, this would also restore civilian control over the military. It is a sad comment on the legacy of the social contract tradition that people are ready enough to trumpet the importance of moral and religious values, but unwilling to support such a policy, which would seem to be the basic minimum that such values would advocate. Instead, young people and their parents seem preoccupied with “getting ahead,” and the idea that two or three years of life would actually be given to others is regarded as absurd — despite the fact that this work is being done every day, usually by people who are far less able than the middle-class young to afford the drain on time and energy that it imposes.

Nussbaum appears to be completely insensitive in this case to the use of coercion, and not just a little nudge, but literally commandeering the bodies and minds of 18-year-olds, who have by this age thoroughly developed a sense of agency and yearn to lead their own lives by their own values. Such a policy violates the principle that each individual should be treated as an end in theirself. Nussbaum’s sanguinity about a military option (and her apparent nostalgia for the draft) is troubling. It surely matters that historically the US military has played a brutally anti-capabilitarian role in the lives of millions around the world. Contrast this nostalgia with Milton Friedman’s famous advocacy for the draft’s abolition on account of its striking similarity to slavery. One can agree with Nussbaum’s exhortation to learn about and respect care work and care workers, but this calls for the hard work of consciousness-raising and carefully structured laws (there is a role for the state) to identify, protect, and justly compensate care workers, not forced servitude.

This is just one example of one policy proposal from a capabilitarian, but hopefully the general case is clear. Because most capabilitarians are high liberals there is an assumption that extensive government action is required to implement the lofty capabilitarian vision. But government action is rooted in coercion by threat of violence. This fact doesn’t remove government action from the palette of options. But it does suggest careful discretion is needed to ensure the benefits of a given policy are proportional to the moral costs of coercion.

Public Choice

The capabilitarian easily tempted to public policy solutions can learn from the insights of public choice theory. I will outsource to Jane Shaw to describe the basic principles:

Public choice takes the same principles that economists use to analyze people’s actions in the marketplace and applies them to people’s actions in collective decision making. Economists who study behavior in the private marketplace assume that people are motivated mainly by self-interest. Although most people base some of their actions on their concern for others, the dominant motive in people’s actions in the marketplace—whether they are employers, employees, or consumers—is a concern for themselves. Public choice economists make the same assumption—that although people acting in the political marketplace have some concern for others, their main motive, whether they are voters, politicians, lobbyists, or bureaucrats, is self-interest. In Buchanan’s words the theory “replaces… romantic and illusory… notions about the workings of governments [with]… notions that embody more skepticism.”

High liberals are quick to spot (real or imagined) market failures, but of course government failures exist as well. One of the key lessons of public choice is thus that we shouldn’t place unwarranted faith in the benevolence of public sphere actors. Public choice casts doubt over our ability to correct market failures without simply replacing them with government failures. Public choice also offers an understanding of “regulatory capture,” whereby government regulations are often not crafted for the public, but instead for those entrenched and well-connected political insiders, in both government and the private sphere.

High liberals often make it sound as if government is corrupted by the private sphere, but of course influence goes both directions, and individuals within the government (not only elected officials but political appointees and institutional bureaucrats) have immense power. It is a misunderstanding that libertarians see villainy only in government figures. We see corruption arising from an elite social class comprising both public and private actors, and facilitated by the presence of too much opportunity for collusion between the two spheres.

Of course, governments in the real world sometimes do correct market failures, and they are able to coordinate successfully on collective action problems, albeit more slowly and less cleanly than anyone would wish. The cynicism of public choice can be overstated. But the insights remain if we suppose not vicious self-interest, but instead the banal self-interest captured well by Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Skepticism of Democracy

This is really a particular instance of public choice theory, but it deserves its own heading. High liberals, and likely capabilitarians among them, put a lot of stock into democratic decision making. But this too requires a reality check. Seen as a rational agent, the typical voter has little incentive to become informed. After all, the only way to have a discernible impact in a democratic election is to cast a tie-breaking vote; otherwise, the voter can stay home to witness the same outcome. But in any election involving even a modest number of voters, the chance of the election coming down to a single vote is vanishing. With a large electorate, the error in the ballot counting process is greater than the single vote even the most earnest voter can cast. Thus there is little incentive to become informed enough to vote well.

It gets worse. Because we humans naturally derive some psychological pleasure from our tribal affiliations and the identities we construct for ourselves, we have reason to vote in a way that makes us feel good. So the voter has reason to support their team whether or not it’s right on the issues salient to a given election. The average voter is not only rationally ignorant but rationally irrational. The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan (not a neoclassical liberal) points out that voters have systematic biases, where their opinions diverge from those of experts (as well as verifiable fact often enough). One bias Caplan identifies is an anti-market bias.

Controlling for income, income growth, job security, gender, and race only mildly reduces the size of the lay-expert belief gap. And, since the typical economist is actually a moderate Democrat, controlling for party identification and ideology makes the lay-expert belief gap get a little bigger. Economists think that markets work well not because of their extreme right-wing ideology, but despite their mild left-wing ideology.

Perhaps of interest to capabilitarians, Caplan also identifies a bias against foreigners, in terms of both immigration and trade. Because they are systematic, these biases don’t fortuitously cancel out to leave a wise and virtuous deliberative core. The neoclassical liberal Jason Brennan has discussed the ethical implications of this at length. The bottom line is that there is no obligation for the individual to vote, but if the individual does choose to vote, they should exercise epistemic virtue and rigor in doing so. In capabilitarian lingo: while we must protect the capability of the individual to make their political voice heard, we should hesitate to encourage the typical individual to convert this capability into a functioning. The capabilitarian should focus on education, the cultivation of epistemic virtue among citizens, and alternative expressions of civic virtue (say, volunteering in care work), rather than fetishize democratic participation as such.

The mere stamp of approval of a majority by itself confers no greater legitimacy than the free and autonomous activities that occur in a marketplace or other voluntary arena. The desirability of involving the democratic community in any particular issue should be weighed against the degree of coercion involved, the public choice dynamics at play, and the awareness that voters may not vote in a just manner. It is simply wiser to leave a great many things to the discretion of the individual where the input of the electorate isn’t absolutely essential.

Spontaneous Order

The considerations above are rather pessimistic. We don’t want to trust human nature on many political decisions because the results will predictably tend to be sub-optimal, even on capabilitarian grounds. Keeping the caveat from Part II firmly in mind, we can be guardedly more optimistic about humans taking care of themselves in a lightly but effectively regulated marketplace. Quoting again Brennan and Tomasi (who channel Leonard Read),

A commercial market is a paradigm of a spontaneous order. The production of the most ordinary commercial good—a lowly pencil—requires the mobilization of a staggeringly complex system of actors: foresters, miners, sailors, metallurgists, chemists, gluers, accountants and more.  Literally “no person on the face of this earth” knows how to make a pencil from scratch, yet pencils are produced. The market mobilizes the army of people who make the pencil, but not one plays the role of general.  The cooperative system that produces pencils is a product of human action but not of human design.  Most people involved in making pencils have no idea they are doing so.

Nobody knows how to make a pencil — not to mention a microprocessor chip — but they still get made. The spontaneous order is in many cases far more effective at producing the things we need and want — and the things required for a flourishing civilization — than rationally directed or democratically dictated methods. And spontaneous orders work their magic in a way that, at least to first-order (recalling the critical importance of the social context) respects the agency of the individual as an actor pursuing their own ends. More profoundly, spontaneous orders involve an exploration of the adjacent possible, culturally, economically, and technologically, that offers the promise of expanding the capabilities set in radical and unforeseeable ways. It has already done so. Deirdre McCloskey has argued powerfully that the Great Enrichment (the explosion of wealth from ~1800 to the present) resulted from the Enlightenment’s bestowal of dignity to the commoner to pursue their own ends by their own means, economically and otherwise, thus setting in motion the spontaneous order of innovation.

Virtue, the Social Context, and Conclusion

It may seem like the door opened by embracing the capabilities approach is just closed again by the hard-headed libertarian arguments presented above. But this is just the assumption that if we really want or need something, then we turn to government to make it happen. Libertarianism does cast a skeptical shadow over this assumption. But these libertarian arguments do not definitively obviate the role of government. They merely limit its role, in scope but more importantly in shape. Consider again the argument for a universal basic income. Neoclassical liberals advance this specific social support policy because it maximizes the discretion of the individual and minimizes the opportunities for the kinds of political tinkering that both disrespect the individual (e.g., humiliating means testing) and reduce its effectiveness (by e.g., stipulating that recipients obtain specific goods and services through approved providers, which is to say, political insiders). Of course, any system devised and managed by fallen humanity must eventually decay, but knowing how this happens can improve our designs. The capabilitarian armed with libertarian realism will above all see that government action does not provide a silver bullet.


In my view the most important result of the fusion of capabilitarianism and libertarianism is an awareness of the importance of the social context. Because there is no such thing as a policy silver bullet, we must wade into the murk and mire of the social context, where we talk with one another, and raise consciousness about failures of justice. Coercive policies aimed at eliminating racism, sexism, ableism, etc, will be corrupted by actors (public and private) who ingeniously bend or work around the regulations, (cynically or unconscious). I aim at libertarians as well: greater dignity for and higher expectations of virtue in public figures may result in less evil governments. Public institutions are emergent too. Virtue (all of them), engendered and sustained within the conversational milieu of the social context, is required for any spontaneous order to work for the flourishing of all. Formal constitutional guarantees of capabilities are probably necessary in some cases, likely counter-productive in other cases, but in no case sufficient to bring about capabilitarian flourishing.

With this and the previous three essays, I have introduced and advocated the capabilities approach, and I have argued that some kinds of libertarianism may be able to stand up to its rigorous demands. But the learning goes both ways, as libertarians have much wisdom to impart in terms of the feasibility and expectations of the public sector. Above all, I think, the collision of these two theories highlights the importance of the social context, and our conversations with one another in the world of values and ideas. But I am sensitive to my ignorance relative to my intended audience. The ambitious project I envision is a research program of libertarians and capabilitarians (and virtue ethicists?) working together to construct a new paradigm in political theory. I have merely sketched the contours of the conversation I hope might follow.

Absence of War Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

A lovely piece, over at The Illustrated Guide to Law, recommended once upon a time by our dear Spivonomist, is missing something. Heraclitus fans picked up on it almost immediately.

“Guilt Without Fault” is a fascinating learning piece concerning mens rea and the criminalization of procedural and civil violations, e.g., going to jail for innocently collecting off the ground the feather of a bird arbitrarily placed on an endangered species list, i.e., instead of a monetary judgment. Within the piece is a thorough and beautifully illustrated guide to the context of over-criminalization, including a few historical morsels.

In those morsels, Nathan Burney, the author (who does a fabulous job; I can’t gush enough over the helpfulness of his site to the likes of me), notes the build-up of certain historical anxieties, then the denouement, all of which instruct us as to our present predicament.

As we interpret the meaning of our own current events, we find ourselves talking about innocent people trying to navigate through an overly-complex social code which is enforced by armed agents of the government. You, dear reader, may recall some recent and newsworthy episodes of social and civil law being enforced by armed agents who were subsequently met with a response most criminal in nature. Burney clearly demonstrates that today’s society is not the first society to find itself mired in such a predicament, and he also gives us hope that there is a happy release from our present predicament. Nevertheless, I wonder if he has glossed over a peculiarity about those examples of happy release from over-criminalization.

For example, Burney calls to mind the dyspepsia of William Blackstone, whose thorough outcry against over-criminalization became a textbook for the founders of the United States (illustrated history of said begins here). In other words, Blackstone experienced limited success in his home England, but his ideas were influential in the newly formed United States. Unfortunately, he died in 1780, unable to witness the fruits of his labors.

Perhaps he died thinking that he actually had seen the fruits of his labors. The eradication of over-criminalization in America came by means of “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” followed by a volley of shots, then cannon fire, then cavalry charges, and finally, naval bombardment. After the British Army and the Continental Army took their turns scouring the settled regions of America, the United States was born, her people released happily from over-criminalization.


It is a running joke amongst us Sweet Talkers that some fuel, a match, and some rope will get our society where it needs to be, not to be perfect, as the utopians speak, but to be more perfect, as Abraham Lincoln taught. I don’t know that I want to see the eradication of over-criminalization. Compliance isn’t that hard, after all, especially since my refrigerator and freezer are full of food, and sports are being played without ceasing on screens throughout my house. Panem et circensibus sound ominous at first, indicating loss of something valuable, but bureaucracy creep inside my home is a welcome alternative to ashes.

Capabilities and Libertarianism Part III: Capabilities for Neoclassical Liberals

So far I have discussed how some forms of libertarianism cannot be justified for reasons any self-respecting capabilitarian would accept. I know of no libertarian who works explicitly within a capabilities framework, but some libertarians hint at capabilitarian inclinations. For libertarianism to be justified in terms of the capabilities approach, libertarian principles would be affirmed and defended because they advance human capabilities. Some libertarians, especially those I discussed in the previous post, believe liberty means freedom only from violent interference, especially government, whose violence is seen as legitimate. This view is insufficient to satisfy the multi-value, outcome-conscious capabilities approach. Yet one can also understand liberty as having positive and negative types, where negative liberty refers to freedom from interference and positive liberty refers to freedom to (do) stuff. This concept of positive liberty can get us quite close to capabilities.

The Neoclassical Liberals

Jason Brennan and John Tomasi have described the emergence of a gaggle of libertarian philosophers advancing “neoclassical liberalism“, a view combining the high liberal commitment to social justice with a robust defense of economic liberty on ethical — as opposed to merely instrumental — grounds.

Neoclassical liberalism concurs with Marxism that citizens should have the effective means to exercise their wills, to do as they please (provided they do not violate other citizens’ rights), and to lead their conceptions of the good life. Neoclassical liberals agree with high liberals that citizens should have the effective means to face each other as free and equal.

Neoclassical liberals argue that negative liberty matters in part because, historically, protecting negative liberties has been and will continue to be the most important and effective way of promoting positive liberty. Thanks to economic, cultural, and scientific growth, a typical citizen of a Western nation today enjoys far more positive liberty than a medieval king. This growth did not occur because a government declared or legally guaranteed that it would occur. It occurred because Western countries adopted functional background institutions, institutions that, over time, gave citizens the incentives and means to promote positive liberty through their commercial, literary, scientific, and cultural activities. In practice, promoting positive liberty does not come at the expense of negative liberty, as Berlin worried. Instead, positive liberty is promoted by respecting negative liberty.

The point for both high and neoclassical liberals is to kindle autonomy for all and make it possible for each individual to lead the kinds of lives they have reason to value. While neoclassical liberals argue that protecting negative liberties will foster positive liberties to a great degree, most also acknowledge the necessity of state action to provide positive liberties when private actions fail to do so.

A good example of this is the enthusiasm among some libertarians for a universal basic income. Matt Zwolinski has written on this topic at a number of different venues. Capabilitarianesque motivations are particularly evident in his exploration of Friedrich Hayek’s support for a basic income.

But even if market competition is often a good check against private dominance, there is no good economic reason to believe that it will always be sufficient. Can we really dismiss the possibility that hard economic times, combined with an excess supply of labor and a small number of employers, will leave some employers with considerable market power over their workers? Are we really willing to say that each and every one of the outrages documented by Bertram et al. [link] is the product of workers’ free choice, rather than (what they appear to be) something imposed on workers against their will by those who wield power over them?

If libertarians are concerned to protect the freedom of all, and not just the freedom of most, we will want some mechanism that catches those who fall through the cracks left by imperfect market competition. We will want, too, some mechanism for protecting individuals whose economic vulnerability renders them vulnerable to domination outside the marketplace – the woman, for example, who stays with her abusive husband because she lacks the financial resources to support herself without him.

Cases such as these point the way to a freedom-based case for a Basic Income Guarantee, of the sort that Hayek might very well have had in mind. A basic income gives people an option – to exit the labor market, to relocate to a more competitive market, to invest in training, to take an entrepreneurial risk, and so on. And the existence of that option allows them to escape subjection to the will of others. It enables them to say “no” to proposals that only extreme desperation would ever drive them to accept. It allows them to govern their lives according to their own plans, their own goals, and their own desires. It enables them to be free.

Zwolinski and Hayek are concerned that mere equality before the law does not ensure meaningful freedom. Private sphere power relations having nothing to do with government can thoroughly inhibit the actual exercise of personal agency.

But why capabilities?

The neoclassical liberals have engaged constructively with high liberalism, a family of ideas containing the capabilities approach. But as far as I’m aware (I’m eager to be corrected), the neoclassical liberals have focused on Rawlsian conceptions of liberalism. It’s reasonable to question why I’m specifically concerned with a libertarian engagement with the capabilities approach. I have two basic reasons. First, it’s possible the neoclassical liberals may find a more receptive audience among the capabilitarians. Second, in my view the capabilities approach is the evaluative gold standard. It’s more demanding than the “justice as fairness” of Rawls. If you can do capabilities, you can do anything.

Ingrid Robeyns has written a recent article attempting to clarify the core commitments of the capabilities approach. She even mentions the possibility of a libertarian capabilities approach. Emphasis in original.

The question of what, if anything, the government ought to do depends on the exact reach of the capabilitarian theory one is defending but also on the answer to the question of whether we need the government to deliver those goods and what can realistically be expected from a government. Just as we need to take people as they are, we need not work with an unrealistic utopian account of government. It may be that the capabilitarian ideal society is better reached by a coordinated commitment to individual action or by relying on market mechanisms.


Clearly, most political philosophers believe that in order to provide public goods and to solve collective action problems that are needed to reach certain levels of capabilities, we need a strong government. But not everyone agrees; in fact, anarchist thinkers vigorously disagree, and adherents of public choice would stress that giving the government the power to deliver those goods will have many unintended but foreseeable negative consequences, which are much more important than the positive contributions the government could make. Thus, while at the descriptive level it is true that most capabilitarian scholars envision a considerable task for the government and public policy, conceptually, there is no reason to believe that this needs to be the case.

What a gracious invitation to dialogue! I suspect there may also be more overlap between neoclassical liberals and capabilitarians than with other high liberals. In addition to the empirical dispute about the consequences of focusing on negative liberty, neoclassical liberals and high liberals disagree about the role of private property rights and economic liberty. High liberals grant a role for economic liberty, often grudgingly, on instrumental grounds alone, whereas neoclassical liberals view private property and substantive economic liberty as an important form of liberty all its own. But at least some prominent capabilitarians reserve an important role for economic liberty as well. Martha Nussbaum, who is generally skeptical of libertarians and their economics, nevertheless includes in her list of ten central capabilities “being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others ….” (Frontiers of Justice).

Amartya Sen is more emphatic in his support for economic liberty. In Development as Freedom, he acknowledges the instrumental case for economic rights, which “is certainly strong, in general, and there is plenty of empirical evidence that the market system can be an engine of fast economic growth and expansion of living standards.” But he also offers the following argument that has nothing whatsoever to do with efficiency:

[A] denial of opportunities of transaction, through arbitrary controls, can be a source of unfreedom in itself. People are then prevented from doing what can be taken to be — in the absence of compelling reasons to the contrary — something that is within their right to do.

Sen continues with a thought experiment:

Even if in both scenarios (involving, respectively, free choice and compliance to dictatorial order) a person produces the same commodities in the same way and ends up with the same income and buys the same goods, she may still have very good reason to prefer the scenario of free choice over that of submission to order. There is a distinction between “culmination outcomes” (that is, only final outcomes without taking any note of the process of getting there, including the exercise of freedom) and “comprehensive outcomes” (taking note of the processes through which the culmination outcomes come about) … . The merit of the market system does not lie only in its capacity to generate more efficient culmination outcomes.

As I say, the capabilitarian and the libertarian should be friends. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Neoclassical liberals can make a strong, and in my view successful, case that their frameworks for an ideal society satisfy Rawlsian requirements for social justice (roughly, that the worst off in society benefit from the inequalities allowed under neoclassical liberal institutions) because that case is easy. Capabilities is harder. To see this, it’s worthwhile to take a look into why capabilitarians themselves do not settle for mere Rawls.

Nussbaum, again in Frontiers of Justice, criticizes the theoretical assumptions underpinning the contractarian “justice as fairness” of John Rawls. Rawls assumes that the principles of justice can be determined by imagining everyone getting together behind a “veil of ignorance” so that they have no prior knowledge of their status in actual society; behind this veil, they simply hash out whatever principles of justice they can all agree to. Leaving be the heroic assumption that different minds, even without knowledge of their social standing, could come to such agreement, it’s important to ask Who are these people? He assumes they have the following qualities: they are roughly equal in mental and physical resources, such that no one of them can dominate the rest; they are free; they are independent of one another in projects and interests; and they are interested in cooperation for the sake of mutual advantage. Nussbaum notes that the assumptions of equality and independence preclude those with mental impairments from the bargaining table. Furthermore, the assumption of self-interest among the parties precludes their interests from being represented at all. These assumptions seem to be motivated by a desire for a robust result derived from parsimonious assumptions, but as Nussbaum notes,

It is uncertain that this parsimonious starting point will even lead in the same direction as a more sympathetic and other-oriented starting point. The pursuit of mutual advantage and the success of one’s own projects is not less than a compassionate commitment to the well-being of all human beings; it is just different.

This may only be of theoretical interest, and may only impact those neoclassical liberals who have developed theories based on a social contract model (John Tomasi, for example, at least in “Free Market Fairness“; and the critique seems apposite for public reason theories as well, like that of Gerald Gaus). But these assumptions limit formal justice to those seen as “contributors” to the public pool and relegate the welfare and flourishing of net or lifelong dependents as well as foreigners (who may not be seen to contribute to the same social contract) to considerations of charity and benevolence. Perhaps this is enough, and I don’t claim that any of the neoclassical liberals oppose, say, tax-funded programs for orphans and the mentally impaired (unless they specifically argue that the state will make things worse). Apart from the theoretical interest, these assumptions about justice risk influencing our thinking in real life contexts, and dignity and justice may (continue to) be denied to those neglected by our theorizing. For Nussbaum, the capabilities approach “envisages human beings as cooperating out of a wide range of motives, including the love of justice itself, and prominently including a moralized compassion for those who have less than they need to lead decent and dignified lives.”

For a less theoretical example, consider material inequality, which neoclassical liberals typically view as irrelevant to considerations of social justice as long as the needs of all people are met according to some standard of decency (the “sufficientarian” criterion). I’m sympathetic to this view. But in contrast, Sen (Development as Freedom) suggests that “Being relatively poor in a rich country can be a great capability handicap, even when one’s absolute income is high in terms of world standards.” He goes on,

For example, the difficulties that some groups of people experience in “taking part in the life of the community” can be crucial for any study of “social exclusion.” The need to take part in the life of a community may induce demands for modern equipment (televisions, videocassette recorders, automobiles and so on) in a country where such facilities are more or less universal (unlike what would be needed in less affluent countries), and this imposes a strain on a relatively poor person in a rich country even when that person is at a much higher level of income compared with people in less opulent countries.

This is a 90’s variation of the well-worn “hedonic treadmill”, and yet we shouldn’t dismiss the critique. It is easy to moralize this issue and say poor folks should prioritize better. They should be comfortable living with the technologies of yesteryear and generic brands and styles of clothing, etc., if this is what they can afford. They are, after all, much better off than their ancestors or those living in poorer countries. Consider, though, how our intuitions change when poor individuals do not themselves mimic the rich, but instead finance the appearance of greater social standing for their children. I suspect we’re more sympathetic to the “strain on the relatively poor” parent who struggles to free their children from social exclusion. I am not proposing material egalitarianism, but denying there is any moral element to material inequality seems to deny human nature. But perhaps there is no conflict if the sufficientarian requirement of social justice acknowledged by neoclassical liberals is so conceived as to accommodate dignity or social standing, thereby blurring the lines between sufficientarianism and egalitarianism.


I have suggested in this post that the neoclassical liberal variants of libertarianism, in stark contrast to the bullet-biting libertarianisms of the previous post, stand a fair chance at satisfying the stringent justificatory requirements of the capabilities approach. I believe neoclassical liberalism can surmount the few examples of potential disagreement between these schools I was able to conjure up. I say “potential” because, frankly, I’m not an expert on the detailed philosophical arguments of all of the neoclassical liberals I’ve mentioned, and I hope I have misrepresented no one. I am merely a concerned lay person, and my purpose in writing this series is to encourage the actual trained philosophers within these two schools to engage with one another.

In the final post, I will suggest how libertarians may be able to provide useful guidance for capabilitarians, including an appreciation of spontaneous order, public choice concerns, a sensitivity to coercion, and a respectful skepticism of democratic procedures.

Temperance Against Slobs

Temperance is the virtue that most prominently displays the controversial aspects of Aristotle’s ethical system.

On the one hand, it is the virtue of restraint and self-command—fairly familiar concepts to us, if saddled to baggage of their own.

On the other hand, it is not the virtue of willpower, not really. The person who is able to resist the urge to do something wrong is merely encratic, or continent. This is also true of the person who is able to muster the strength to do the right thing even when it is unpleasant to do so. Lack of self-control is akrasia; but lack of self-control is not the opposite of temperance.

Becoming encratic is the first step to becoming temperate. The temperate person actually wants to do the right thing, in the right amount, under the right circumstances. In Aristotle’s system, the emotions and desires of the virtuous person align with right reason, rather than needing to be overcome.

I believe it was Julia Annas who said that this seems less weird if we simply ask the question “what would we rather our children be: someone who has a strong desire to do the wrong thing but can overcome it, or someone who genuinely wants to do the right thing?”

If you accept that we can discipline our desires to some extent through habit building (among other means), and that moral ideals are a matter of ascertaining what is good enough in context rather than achieving perfection, I think this begins to looks more reasonable.

It has recently occurred to me that the opposite of temperance is not lack of self-control—akrasia is the opposite of enkrateia, not of temperance. No, the opposite of temperance is indulging in every myopic, sinful, selfish desire without restraint. Across the chasm from the virtuous person who seems restrained and polished without effort is the utter slob and brute.

The most striking thing about the titular character of The Sopranos is not that he is a cold-blooded mobster—at this point we are all well exposed to mob movies. What’s striking about Tony, aside from the novelty of his anxiety and depression, is his complete intemperance. He lashes out in anger and gives in to lust and offends the people around him even when it is against his interests. It’s not out of a lack of prudence, either—he reflects often on how this problem often interferes with his business. He’s well aware after the fact that he’s behaved poorly even by the narrowest of selfish standards, but he can’t be bothered to do anything about it.

Maybe Aristotle’s ideal of temperance is too high for most people. I know that I haven’t even crossed the “good enough” threshold. Maybe self-control is a better standard, along the lines spelled out by people like Baumeister or Heath and Anderson.

But the slob definitely serves as a useful negative standard. So please: don’t be a self-indulgent, short-sighted, reactive, thoughtless brute. You owe it to the people around you and yourself to do better.

Previous Posts in Thread

Capabilities and Libertarianism, Part II: Capabilities for Bullet-Biting Libertarians

In the previous post I described the capabilities approach and discussed some of its appeal. The story grows in the telling, as they say, and I’ve decided to split the current post on why libertarianism could use the capabilities approach into two separate posts. In this post I’ll suggest how some common justificatory bases for libertarianism fail, and do so in ways readily grokked from a capabilitarian vantage. The next post will focus on how other (better) species of libertarianism are already fairly compatible with capabilities.

Libertarians should adopt a capabilities framework simply because in some form it has compelling normative force. Simplistically, for any society at any point in capabilities space, it seems intuitive that that society would be improved by advancing any capabilities of its members without regressing on other capabilities for any of its members. Things admittedly get more complicated when some capabilities advance at the expense of others, or the capabilities of a select few advance significantly faster while their fellows languish, or again when capabilities conflict with one another (examples of religious doctrines standing in opposition to other basic capabilities come to mind, or perhaps property claims). These are topics I hope libertarians and capabilitarians can have late night dorm room arguments about. But the simple case seems trivially true. But many common forms of libertarianism fail for trying to get too much mileage out of one good idea and ignoring the complexities of the human condition, including the historical contingency of socioeconomic patterns, human diversity, and human frailty.

the Bullet-bitarians

Consider the non-aggression principle (NAP), which states that violent aggression against person or property is always wrong. In it’s strongest form, some “thin” libertarians take this as the totality of their ethical theory, so that “anything peaceful” is hunky-dory. A weaker version allows that the NAP proscribes violent aggression, but leaves what one ought positively to do to other ethical systems. But the NAP utterly fails to grapple with real life complexity. Matt Zwolinski and Julian Sanchez have written persuasively on several reasons why the NAP fails, but the central reason is that the NAP is an absolutist position. Like any absolutist (as opposed to presumptive-but-defeasible) position, it falls victim to the first moderately imaginative reductio ad absurdum to happen along. Here is one of the reductios from Zwolinski,

But taken to its consistent extreme, as Murray Rothbard took it, the NAP implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death, so long as you do not forcibly prevent him from obtaining food on his own. Or, at least, it implies that it would be wrong for others to, say, trespass on your property in order to give the child you’re deliberately starving a piece of bread. This, I think, is a fairly devastating reductio of the view that positive duties may never be coercively enforced.

We could bite this bullet, but a whole firing squad awaits us down this path. If, more sanely, we take the obligations of parents to children as a whole field where the NAP offers nothing of value, then we must conclude that the full libertarian political framework is really based on something else, justified on other grounds. The capabilitarian, meanwhile, acknowledges upfront that a human life consists of periods of dependency, notably infancy and childhood. Infants and children require care and development; any society that would countenance withholding such care in order to spare adults from coercion should be condemned.

The capabilitarian is also sensitive to the fact that women have historically been expected to provide this care, usually uncompensated. The legacy of such gendered expectations can frustrate the effective ability of women (men too, to some extent) to pursue the kinds of lives they have reason to desire. NAP libertarianism, of course, has no response to this kind of systemic, patterned inequality, not even to say that the cultural norms perpetuating the malignant pattern should be dispensed with.

Zwolinski and Sanchez both point out that the NAP is parasitic on a theory of property. Propertarian conceptions of libertarianism maintain that all rights can be construed as property rights. The right to be free from violent assault, for example, is really the property right to one’s own person — self-ownership. But property too cannot support the heavy load demanded of it by many libertarians. The idea of property in central cases has a lot of intuitive appeal. If I am on stranded on deserted island and procure for myself a fishing spear, a stockpile of coconuts, and a hut, then, should it turn out that the other half of the island is inhabited by collectivists, I have a strong intuitive moral claim that those islanders can’t just take my stuff. “It’s mine, goddamnit” is actually pretty good justification.

But many forms of property are less crystal clear. Rights to land? How deep into the ground do these rights extend? And how does our understanding of underground rights change as we discover that the contents of the earth beneath us have value? And these contents (water, oil) tend not to obey human property lines; do you have recourse if I “drink your milkshake“? Other quantities also fail to respect human drawn boundaries: pollution, noise, radiation, and all the externalities of human action that can radically impact the value of land property. Perhaps inconveniently for the hardline propertarian, many socially useful forms of property are those that cannot be simply homesteaded. Consider the radio spectrum, or the divvying up of fishing rights or other renewable resources that can easily be depleted without conscious effort at preventing a tragedy of the commons. These notions and the disputes that arise from them require discussion, and deals, and guidelines that all depart from the simple intuitive case of my stuff on the island.

We encounter another hail of bullets if we’re not prepared, as Locke was, to acknowledge that we cannot claim property without leaving as much and as good behind for those who come after the initial claims. Or as Nozick acknowledged, we mustn’t adhere to a principle of property in the face of “catastrophic moral horror”. And we should remember that property rights themselves require coercion, as Kevin Vallier helpfully explains:

Rousseau asks us to imagine someone who is not convinced of natural rights to property, at least as interpreted by the richer laborers in society. The responder has a rational complaint: who made you [the rich, the “haves] judge of where your property rights begin and end? It’s a dangerous juridical power, one that can easily be used to keep people hungry and powerless. In light of the suffering of the property-less, why should they ever think that the claims of the rich and powerful are naturally legitimate? What could justify the haves in using coercion to protect their property when the have-nots have so little?

This alludes to a final point about property. The distribution of property in society did not arise from the rational and moral negotiations of neutral beings in some original position, veiled or otherwise. We inherit our present distributions of property and power from a history filled with blood and oppression and terror. None of the above should be taken to deny the immense usefulness of property rights, nor the intuitiveness of the central cases. But property is not fundamental. We must find our justification elsewhere. This history, to the extent that it adversely impacts some individuals’ ability to develop their capabilities and execute their life plans, would matter very much to the capabilitarian.

Objectivism and false flourishing

It usually begins with Ayn Rand, they say, and it certainly did in my case. Rand bases her libertarianism on the moral primacy of the individual, and asserts that the individual should live for their own happiness according to rational self-interest. “Rational”, because the individual must employ reason to survive in a world of objective reality — that is, a world where facts will not bend just because they may hurt our feelings. Rand offers an inspiring vision of the individual as a rational creature capable of amazing accomplishments, especially when that individual enjoys the comradeship of other equally rational and self-interested people who can prosper by trading value for value with one another as moral equals. No one is subjugated for the sake of a morally vacuous collective or majority (vacuous because groups cannot reason or value; only individuals can).

But of course this vision is unrealistic. We are inescapably dependent creatures. Each of us is born without our prior consultation, completely dependent on the humans around us, and raised in an environment not of our own choosing. This environment has profound impacts on every aspect of our being that propagate through the rest of our lives. If we are lucky enough to survive to old age, we’ll encounter a fate symmetric to infancy: the gradual loss of our independence and the rational faculties that make us characteristically individual. A hardcore Randian may argue that old age can be predicted and it’s the individual’s responsibility to plan for it, but there is no such argument for the dependent and coerced nature of childhood. And what about those born with nonstandard mental capacities or those whose capabilities are diminished by accident or villainy? It’s no surprise that Atlas Shrugged includes no children with any significant camera time, and no senile or handicapped people at all.

We reason, but our rationality is famously imperfect and heavily scaffolded by our environments. We are individuals, and I won’t argue that the moral buck doesn’t ultimately stop with the individual. But we are also social beings, to such an extent that an individual too long apart from society may lose what is recognizable as humanity.

I always find Ayn Rand’s message that the individual and their happiness must not be sacrificed on the altar of need or collective desire deeply stirring. It is a presentation of human flourishing, and as such it’s a richer basis for libertarianism than the NAP or property fetishism. But a realistic concept of human flourishing must contend with the objective reality of the human condition a far sight better than the wishful fantasies of Objectivism. The capabilities approach is consistent with a similarly lofty vision for the individual. In Sen’s words, the capabilities approach “gives a central role to the evaluation of a person’s achievements and freedoms in terms of his or her actual ability to do the different things a person has reason to value doing or being.” The individual has good reason to strive for the heroic, and to view “his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” But a capabilitarian, to adopt this romantic humanistic vision, would nevertheless struggle to reform our cultures and institutions so that each individual can actually develop their capacities to the fullest extent feasible and can rationally, effectively determine their own moral purpose, not just those already blessed at birth.

a brief note on spontaneous order

Friedrich Hayek’s conception of libertarianism (he would prefer “liberalism”) is, in my view, far more sophisticated than those discussed above. Hayek observed that the free actions of individuals within a regime of stable rules, undertaken on the basis of local knowledge for individual ends and undirected by a grand teleology delivered from on high, result in a spontaneous order capable of, among other things, allocating resources more efficiently than a rationally planned society. I’ll discuss in a later post how capabilitarians can benefit from a libertarian appreciation of spontaneous order as a powerful tool for expanding human capabilities in a way that respects individual agency. But for now I want to suggest how capabilitarian attention to social patterns can sharpen the libertarian understanding of spontaneous order.

The libertarian thinker, Charles W Johnson, in his brilliant essay on rape culture, Women and the Invisible Fist, points out that spontaneous order can arise just as easily from dispersed coercive interactions as it can from dispersed consensual interactions. Emphasis in the original:

But nothing conceptually requires that emergent orders need be benign orders. If widely distributed forms of intelligence, knowledge, virtue, or prudence can add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into a benign undesigned order, then there’s no reason why widely distributed forms of ignorance, prejudice, folly or vice might not add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into an unintended, malign order. So might widely-distributed, micro-level practices of violence; since libertarians are centrally concerned with individual freedom from violence and coercion, the possibility our threefold distinction raises of an emergent but non-consensual order must surely give us pause.

Similar considerations apply to the insidious legacies of racism, sexism, classism, etc. The capabilitarian emphasis on actual capabilities achievable within different social contexts can provide a useful corrective for the common libertarian failing of appreciating only first-order effects of (usually government) violence.


In the foregoing, I have criticized some popular versions of libertarianism on grounds that I believe capabilitarians would appreciate. However, for the most part I have done this using arguments posed by other libertarians. In part, this is because I have a deeper background in libertarianism than I do in the capabilities approach. But I also hope this strategy will illustrate to both camps that libertarians can be sensitive to capabilitarian rationales. In the next post, I will present several libertarianisms based on grounds reminiscent of the capabilities approach.

High Apple Pie

Of old. my people have divided the clouds by altitude. Near the ground we have fog. Many people don’t know it, but fog is actually a cloud called a “stratus” cloud. Stratus clouds can be higher than ground level, but not always. The other major type of low-altitude cloud is “cumulus” which are the puffy clouds you see in old storybook illustrations. Stratocumulus are a combination of the two: thin like stratus, but puffy on top like cumulus. In the middle range are the alto clouds: the altocumulus and the altostratus clouds that are wispier than the low-altitude clouds. These are the ones that give you haze in the summer. Up at the tippy-top are the high-altitude cirrus clouds, the cirrocumulus herringbone clouds and the wispy pure cirruses and the bad omen cirrostratus that make halos around the sun and the moon. Crossing the layers are the nimbus clouds, and the biggest of the lot are the cumulonimbus, also known as thunderheads. Continue reading “High Apple Pie”