Monday, August 28, 2006

Introducing (post)libertarianism

I have been grappling since Sukrit invited me to join this blog with how to explain my thoughts about libertarianism. Having just finished The Beach, I thought I might try to explain a few of my thoughts by reference to the ideas expressed in The Beach.

The Beach was a high profile remake of the French movie La Plage. The essential plot is that Richard, (played by Leonardo di Caprio), a young American out to experience the world, gets given a map showing the location of a secret paradise unknown to the tourist trail. Setting out with a French girl he has the hots for and the boyfriend Richard wishes she didn't have, they find a tropical paradise inhabited by twenty or so young backpacker types from Europe and America (including the token black man, who in this case is a cricket mad Englishman) who are committed to one thing and one thing only: pleasure. Paradise is however threatened by the visitation of tragedy on the island, other backpackers who have heard the legend, and by marijuana farmers on the other side of the island. Richard is willing to kill to protect paradise, but even that is not enough, and eventually they all have to leave.

If you had to describe the society of The Beach, you would describe it as hedonistic, not libertarian. Hedonism and Libertarianism are different philosophies with different aims. One seeks to maximise pleasure, the other seeks to maximise freedom. However in reality, we often find them quite complimentary - two sides of the coin. Richard, the American, from the land of the free, uses his freedom to pursue pleasure. The libertarian philosophy of the West enables many individuals within the West to adopt a personal philosophy of hedonism.

Now freedom to choose how we live is at the core of our society. However when a large portion of our society choose to do that in a manner which sees them fail to reproduce, then freedom becomes terminal. What do I mean by "terminal"? It becomes an end point, an ending, its conclusion. And that thing which is concluding isn't just the generation in question, it's the freedom they enjoyed as well. When the free people die, and they haven't had children, haven't given someone else the opportunity to experience the world they have been enjoying, who replaces them?

What am I suggesting then? That we forsake freedom? No. That we forbid pleasure? No. Of all the political philosophies, I believe libertarianism is the least bad of them all. However the freedom sought by libertarianism is not enough on its own. Something more is needed in order to ensure not just that freedom exists in this generation, but that it is carried on into the next one, and the one after that, and after that again. That something else, that's what makes me (post)libertarian.

Postmodernists find it impossible to break away from the modernist paradism and form something completely new, so they signal both their bondage to and understanding of the weaknesses of modernism through the prefixation of "post". In the same way, I am both completely enthralled by, and acutely aware of the weaknesses of, Libertarianism. As part of this blog, I hope to share with you my thoughts, my questions, my musings, on these post-libertarian questions that occupy my mind.

23 Comments:

At August 28, 2006 1:47 pm, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

Haven't read the book, only seen the movie.

In the movie the society started is a socialist one, not a libertarian or hedonistic one.

In fact the shortfalls of a closed socialist system are a pretty strong theme in the movie. (For the first part anyway, then it just goes all psychadelic and crappy).

 
At August 28, 2006 2:14 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Leaving the movie (and book) to one side and considering pl's substantive point, is, I think, interesting.

For me, the elephant in the room with regard to the question of low birth-rates in modern liberal democracies is undoubtedly gender. Women now control their fertility in these societies, not men, and much of what appeared to be feminine altruism historically (bearing many children) was probably a chimera.

Altruism in humans is fairly weak; given the opportunity to express itself, self-interest will predominate. Women - far more than men - were expected to sacrifice themselves for others. That cultural imperative is now gone.

Attempts to bump up the birth-rate with subsidies is at best economically dubious - women are not vending machines into which one deposits cash in order to get babies in return.

I do not know how to solve this conundrum, apart from the tried and true traditional solution - more immigrants, especially young ones. That said, if the immigrants in question are to join our society, they need to play by our rules...

 
At August 28, 2006 4:20 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

But, taken as a species, our problem is not declining birth rates. Quite the opposite in fact.

I'm still not quite sure where you're coming from. Is the demography issue symbolic of Libertarians failings or is it the failing? If the latter, then perhaps there is a cultural angle to your analysis?

ie: What if there are not enough free people left to defeat the unfree people (or the leaders controlling the unfree people?)

 
At August 28, 2006 4:45 pm, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

This is the typical socially conservative view that I disagree with :-)

It seems to assume there is something inherently good about having the right amount of population. Or that the artificial construct (country) known as Australia is something worth having a baby for. Why not just let human incentives work without distortions?

There are surely 'weaknesses' in libertarianism but I'm not so sure a hands-off approach that leads to a failure to procreate is one of them. It's not exactly surprising though, the trend of development reducing fertility is a worldwide phenomenon.

Open immigration is something worth exploring.

And I wonder if a low population brings other benefits in the form of reduced externalities?

Good post though!

 
At August 28, 2006 6:19 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i support both letting people decide and open immigration.
However while we are waiting how about the Government offering a $50,000 bounty to men over 65 if they father a child. The bounty should be enough to share with a fertile women (thus upping the birth rate) and the activity will see a proportion of men die in the attempt thus helping the manage the ageing of the population which is another supposed worry.

 
At August 29, 2006 11:42 am, Blogger (post)libertarian said...

Thanks for all your comments. My argument isn't that the State should interfere with reproductive behaviour. It is merely that if a libertarian society is to be sustainable, it needs something else in it (other than the state) to encourage people to reproduce. That, if you like, libertarian government isn't enough for a flourishing society, there needs to be a set of values entered into voluntarily by citizens in order for that society to be sustainable.

 
At August 29, 2006 6:39 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

But why do we need an increase in reproduction? Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

 
At August 29, 2006 6:54 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I think pl's point is that the wealthy, libertarian countries aren't reproducing enough, while the ignorant, poor ones are - largely because they're poor and ignorant.

One solution is to steal young, clever people from the poor and ignorant countries and take them into the rich countries. Another solution is to use all sorts of statist inducements to up the birth rate. Yet another is the sanctifying of a set of cultural and social values that value fertility.

I think option (a) is the only realistic one. As a (happily) childless 34 year old female, I'd willingly vote against any government that treats me like a vending machine, and fight against any government that presumes to inclucate some sort of national 'value set'. Leave that to the Islamo-fascists.

 
At August 29, 2006 8:36 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Another might be to support democratic and other freedom inducing change in the 'poor and ignorant' countries.

In my experience condescension tends to backfire. And 'stealing' usually causes resentment :-)

Freedoms way tougher than that, anyway.

For mine, the dangers of Climate change and of overpopulation outweigh any that might be emanating from the tyranical orient.

 
At August 29, 2006 9:54 pm, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

Higher population is an obvious advantage because it allows for more specialisation of labour and bigger economies of scale.

As a general rule the most successful societies at any given period of time have been those with the highest population densities.

Especially at the advent of the industrial revolution, The countries who did the best out it were the highly populated ones - England, the US, Japan, Russia, Germany.

Germany and Russia subsequently threw their good start away with losing wars and socialism, but before that they were competitive.

Japan were lucky enough to be an Island so their losing war didn't set them back as much as it did the others, and they managed to completely avoid socialism.

Many of the problems facing Australia are simply due to our extremely low population densities.

The fact we have become as successful a society as we have is mostly a reflection of having got the ideal start (as a British Colony).

 
At August 29, 2006 11:06 pm, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

I think the key question that needs to be answered is whether there is a 'right' amount of population Australia should be aiming for.

I think the answer is no. High population density shouldn't be the goal; we (i.e. the LDP - it's not like anyone else is going to do it) should put in place policies to best utilise the population Australia already has.

"Many of the problems facing Australia are simply due to our extremely low population densities."

The problems I'm guessing you're thinking of presumably involve the remoteness of some country towns? Increased urbanisation isn't a bad objective in that regard. High population centres supported by the right policies are almost invariably wealthier than country towns. Population is the reason for prosperity, as Julian Simon's work showed. But it's not the only reason.

"The fact we have become as successful a society as we have is mostly a reflection of having got the ideal start (as a British Colony)."

India was left British institutions and laws at the time of independence, but hasn't turned out nearly as wealthy as Australia.

 
At August 29, 2006 11:18 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Your point about India is well made, Sukrit. And gutsy.

 
At August 30, 2006 9:06 am, Anonymous mikey said...

Isn't one difference with India, that here british Institutions were virtually transposedonto a blank canvas, where in India there was always a bunch of competing traditions, philosophies, institutions and most importantly, local peoples?

I would have thought that a large part of our advantage was our relative isolation, which would seem to be fairly unnaffected by population density (so long as it is at a reasonable base level.)

Anyway, and excuse my amateur economising, but don't technological and communication innovations as well as globalsisation efffectively undermine, or reinvent concepts like economy of scale or of specialisation? Anyway, to some extent your just saying bigger countries are able to bully and exploit little countries.

And so it's not hard to work out why Most of the Lib and Labor party wish Australia to become a medium power. In fact, I think there is an argument that intentionally increasing population at this point is immoral.

History may have required intense competition from clearly defined nations, but who's to say the future will?

 
At August 30, 2006 11:20 am, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

Yes it's true, there are cultural as well as situational differences between India and Australia. Indians had to agitate for independence, Australia was handed it on a silver platter. And while India became a Republic ASAP, we seem to like Britain enough to remain a constitutional monarchy.

I'm speculating here, but that's probably one reason India pursued heavily socialist policies while Australia didn't (it had the influence of Western liberal thought running through all its institutions and peoples).

 
At August 31, 2006 12:15 am, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

Sukrit: The other point is that India had 5000 years of existence as a subsistence agricultural society behind it that it had to move through.

Australia never did. We started life as an mercantile society and moved fairly quickly to an industrial one with the help of the British Empire.

India's relatively warm relationship with socialism didn't help much either, but I think the primary reason it is not as rich as Australia right now is because it started from a much lower position.

I don't think anyone doubts that India (and China) will overtake Australia within this century, and the primary reasoning behind that is their respective populations.

 
At August 31, 2006 12:18 am, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

In that respect you can compare Australia to countries like Singapore or Hong Kong, which also involved moving masses of traders and craftsman to a previously (basically) uninhabited Island.

 
At August 31, 2006 12:22 am, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

"The problems I'm guessing you're thinking of presumably involve the remoteness of some country towns? Increased urbanisation isn't a bad objective in that regard. High population centres supported by the right policies are almost invariably wealthier than country towns."

The biggest problem Australia has is the vast distances between what are basically separate economies (the 7 states). Trade between the 4 biggest economies (WA, Queensland, Victoria, NSW) is restricted primarily because of the distances involved.

Its no secret why Victoria is the 2nd biggest: It's the one closest to the origin (NSW). WA has more natural resources and land than the rest of the country put together, but our isolation is a big problem.

 
At August 31, 2006 12:24 am, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

If you compare this to a country like the US for example, all of their urban areas are so close together than they could always trade with the 4 closest cities, even before the invention of the automobile.

The only places in the US that suffer from the problem Australia has are Alaska and Hawaii.

 
At August 31, 2006 11:47 am, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

"I don't think anyone doubts that India (and China) will overtake Australia within this century, and the primary reasoning behind that is their respective populations."

Again, it depends on what use they make of that population. Population is not an automatic boon. Indian governments, while ruling over a large population, have systematically suppressed the talent of inumerable Indian Albert Einsteins, etc. by keeping people poor. Socialism had everything to do with it.

If India: continues running loss-making government businesses, continues glossing over infrastructure issues, continues maintaining a judiciary that has a 10 year backlog, continues ignoring political corruption, no amount of population is going to help them until they get these sorts of things fixed. Most of the labour force is highly underutilised. They spend their days performing the mundane tasks that are performed here much quicker and more efficiently by machines.

I don't think India will be as successful as China, at least not in the near future. It had a later start in liberalising.

"Sukrit: The other point is that India had 5000 years of existence as a subsistence agricultural society behind it that it had to move through."

That shouldn't matter. In theory, all developing nations have to do is copy the tried and true practices of the West. It's just that their governments are too stupid to get it. Technology once invented can't be uninvented.

"WA has more natural resources and land than the rest of the country put together, but our isolation is a big problem."

Natural resources aren't the issue. India has plenty of natural resources but is still dirt poor. Singapore and Hong Kong have hardly any and are filthy rich.

Australia could be much wealthier with the population we already have if we became more efficient. The objective shouldn't be to increase our population, it should be to innovate to make that population more productive. An average Australian worker is far more productive than an Indian worker, and so is paid significantly more.

Why is geographical isolation a problem in this day and age? I don't know the details in WA, but if governments are regulating trucking/railroads/other transport, etc. in ways that hinder, the problem may lie there.

 
At August 31, 2006 2:25 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I suspect, too, that India has exported many of its clever and talented people to the west. In a sense, one can hardly blame them for leaving.

 
At September 02, 2006 4:46 am, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

"Why is geographical isolation a problem in this day and age? I don't know the details in WA, but if governments are regulating trucking/railroads/other transport, etc. in ways that hinder, the problem may lie there."

Geographical Isolation is just a virtual tariff on trade.

No matter how technology, systems or laws improve (short of inventing the matter-energy transporter), it will always cost WA more to trade with NSW than it will cost Victoria.

 
At September 02, 2006 12:05 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I hadn't thought of it that way, Sam, but you're right. I suspect similar arguments apply to some of the more isolated (but resource-rich) parts of Queensland.

I live in a town where the airport is used primarily to ferry miners in and out to various mines around the place on a nine days on, four days off basis.

 
At September 12, 2006 3:56 pm, Anonymous taust said...

The comparison of the settler societies of Australia, California,Siberia and Argentina is always an interesting exercise.

Who would you bet on to develop into the highest per capita GDP economy India or China?

 

Post a Comment

<< Home