Arnold Kling  

Act Libertarianism and Rule Libertarianism

Bill Breit, RIP... Guitar Felons...

Robert Frank writes,

Personal autonomy will always be compromised unless all problems stemming from activities that cause harm to others are resolved efficiently.

That is from p.196 of his latest book, The Darwin Economy. So far, I have just read the final chapter, "The Libertarian's Objections, Reconsidered." On p. 201, he writes,

If a rational libertarian wants to form a society with less productive others, thereby to gain advantage in the bidding for positional goods, those others might respond by demanding compensation through the tax system. It would then be up to the libertarian to decide whether joining on those terms was attractive.

In my view, the key word here is joining. Yes, I might join a regulated water system. I might join an insurance system. I might even join an income-redistribution system.

I think it might help to distinguish between a straw-man act-libertarianism and a more reasonable rule-libertarianism. Act libertarianism would mean that at any given moment you are free to do whatever you want, following no rules whatsoever. Rule libertarianism would mean that you are free to bind yourself by undertaking voluntary contractual commitments, to follow a set of rules. So I could agree to follow a dress code when I go to a fancy restaurant. Or I could agree to the terms of a long-term life insurance contract.

I could choose to live in a society where the successful are taxed in order to console the envious. But the larger point is that I ought to be able to choose the society in which I live, rather than have it imposed on me by a monopoly that we call government.

My libertarianism is a strong preference for exit over voice. If my government disappoints me, I want to be able to switch to a different government as readily as I can change cell phone providers, or join a different gym.

Another way to make my point is that in a modern society I want lots of governance, but I want very little of that governance to come from government. Governance is provided by a rich set of nongovernmental institutions, as emphasized by Tocqueville two centuries ago and Elinor Ostrom more recently. The distinctive feature of government is the absence of a reasonable option for exit. If Frank is conflating government with governance, as I suspect he is, then his argument will fail to reach me.

Of course, the law of asymmetric insight says that in any disagreement, disputant A believes that he understands disputant B's position better than disputant B understands A's position, and vice-versa. So don't trust Robert Frank to characterize correctly the views of a libertarian. And don't trust a libertarian to characterize correctly the views of Robert Frank.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
twv writes:

Is the old act/rule distinction really much of a revelation, here?

It helped us make sense of the scrimmage amongst utilitarians. John Hospers made some headway when he explored the idea of a "rule egoism." Even more interestingly, J.L. Mackie noticed a confluence of ethical theories and saw that egoism and utilitarianism and Kantianism all tended to join at the level of practicality, and that act/rule/disposition systems were inevitable when the rubber of theory meets the road of pragmatics.

But every serious libertarian I've met defined liberty as a general rule for all. That's what made each libertarian a LIBERTARIAN, and not some shoot-from-the-hip individualist or egoist.

So I don't see what we gain from "rule libertarianism" - except a nice way of saying that Robert Frank does not understand libertarianism.

James writes:

The act/rule distinction doesn't mean much. If there is a rule libertarianism which specifies a set of permissible and impermissible acts across all possible scenarios, there must also be an act libertarianism which specifies the same set of permissible and impermissible act in the same scenarios.

What Frank has in mind is just a straw man, not some special kind of libertarianism to politely refer to as act libertarianism. Libertarians don't assert a right to make lying promises, or a right to fail to perform according to promises made in good faith.

Dale writes:
My libertarianism is a strong preference for exit over voice. If my government disappoints me, I want to be able to switch to a different government as readily as I can change cell phone providers, or join a different gym.

It seems to me that there are many many more options for government that you are free to choose than there are for cell phones or gyms. There are in fact, hundreds, all over the world, all of which you can (I assume as a man of reasonable means) quite easily choose if it so behooves you.

Why don't you choose another one?

If the market did not supply you with the government of your choosing then doesn't that imply something about the market in the first place? Just as it might be the case that some people want regulation because the market doesn't provide them with the cell phone plan of their choosing?

Your argument seems to be fundamentally the same as the regulators. "I want the world to change for me, because the world has not seen fit to supply me with the perfect system that i want". It seems the market for governments has seen fit to supply those who wish for regulation and not seen fit to supply those who wish for libertarianism.

You might say that it simply isn't easy enough to choose your country for market mechanisms to work. But such an examination would have to acquiesce to the relative ease of movement between peoples of different persuasions. I would find it striking if it were easier for the poor and socialist to move(and exert their influence in their new home) than the rich and libertarian. In short, if there was any market for a libertarian government the libertarians would very likely have already created it.

And that seems to be a damning indictment against the idea in and of itself. The free market of governments cannot create the desired government of the people that espouse it, even when they have the most power of all those to create the system that they want. So then why are we to believe that the free market government is going to create the options that everyone else wants?

Gian writes:

"I ought to be able to choose the society in which I live,"

Can men choose to be not born?

"If my government disappoints me, I want to be able to switch to a different government "

So you would have no loyalty to tribe and city. Nothing in fact that man have preferred to almost everything else, saving religion.

Aristotle said that man was a political animal. I suppose you disagree.

Philo writes:

"Act libertarianism" is, indeed, something of a straw man, because libertarians typically want to allow a person to constrain his own future actions. In the libertarian view, my present "time-slice"--*me-now*--has the right to bind, by contract and in other ways, any of my future "time-slices"--*me-t*, for any value of 't' later than now. In Arnold's terms, libertarians are (virtually all) "rule-libertarians."

For the typical libertarian, your preventing me from freely doing X (for a wide range of values of 'X') is an objectionable violation of my liberty, while *my earlier self's* so preventing me, by making a certain contract, is fine: it is merely an exercise of my earlier self's *freedom* (of contract).

Perhaps this dichotomy can be defended philosophically, but usually that task is not even attempted.

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