While I found Casey Given’s recent post to be timely and interesting, I have to worry about the claim that moralistic arguments for freedom should be abandoned. I’d agree that it’s not enough to go around saying “taxation is theft,” “war is murder,” or “citizenship is slavery.” Not if you leave it at that. Overly simplistic moral arguments are a problem. But, well-thought-out moral arguments based on simple ideas are not. So while the argument “taxation is theft, agree with me!” is an unconvincing argument, sometimes simple ideas are the most important. It is very simplistic to look at the world and say, “War is murder.” But it is a very mature philosophical position to say, “War is murder because all the justifications that have been given for it just do not hold up under legitimate moral philosophical investigation.” The argument it seems Casey is making is that people live in a world where these post hoc justifications for things like state-sponsored theft and murder are front and center in their mind. The mental contortions that have gone on throughout history in order to justify this nonsense are impressive. They are long-standing, and they are, in my opinion, the proper target for our efforts. Most people buy these justifications, have been taught to see them as legitimate and know these justifications are widely popular.
It’s not enough to say, “War is murder,” and expect anyone to drop their assumptions and agree. But, I also think it is easier to convince people than Casey claims. These arguments have a massive intuitive appeal. Think of videos like “ (See also the newest addition to this series). It’s one of the best things to come out of the liberty movement recently. Yes it’s simple, but it’s not simplistic. Anyone can understand it, and it’s very difficult to argue with the position taken at the end of the animation. These are the kinds of arguments I’d like to make. People intuitively know that war is murder, they just have rationalized that feeling away. I’m all for showing them the potential problems with their rationalizations because individuals, and more dangerously societies, can rationalize literally anything. And, the way they rationalize things like war (or slavery, or not giving women the right to vote, or fascism in general) is through consequentialist arguments. There were always moral arguments as well, but I doubt slave owners in the antebellum South kept their slaves because they were concerned about caring for people they thought were less able. They thought it was an efficient system for harvesting crops.
This doesn’t mean that you have to argue for anarchism as Casey claims. Rather, some of societies’ justifications for things like murder and theft may in fact be legitimate. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t question them. We should question any and all justifications of things like this and only accept them if they stand up to very deep scrutiny. I’m all for the minarchist who wants to believe that the justifications for having a police force are legitimate. But, they should question them first.
I don’t think it makes sense to try and shield people from the, in my opinion, stronger arguments for liberty just because they may not get them the first time around. I’d rather put someone on the path to understanding that than simply win them over in a utilitarian framework. I dislike utilitarianism as a framework because it can be used to justify all sorts of things and leads to a pretty meaningless definitions game. I think we can all agree now that some things (like killing people, enslavement, etc.) are wrong and we know this intuitively. The tough part is expressing why these things are wrong and developing a framework of thought that protects all the liberties we’d like. Sure you can claim that slavery is wrong because it’s really inefficient, but even then you would have to show why inefficiency should be avoided. Where do you get? Inefficiency should be avoided because it causes people discomfort/causes people to die/puts us in want of things. And, why is that bad? Well, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. Or, they’d say it’s about preferences, and that people don’t want to be in need, so they shouldn’t be. It’s a pretty meaningless framework. It leads to a big problem. It leads to what I call the Brave New World problem. If you’ve read the book, you know how disconcerting this is. (If you haven’t, check it out here). The people in the book are certainly having their preferences and comforts met. The issue is not efficiency or providing for needs. It is simply and solely freedom. But when you read about that society you know, you can feel, you can sense, that there is something wrong about it. Say hello to your moral intuition. As a moral intuitionist, I think this is the most important starting place for any discussion about morality. If we convince people that liberty is efficient, they can be equally convinced the very next day that fascism is just more efficient. I agree that if you give the issue a good look it is clearly true that liberty is more efficient. But this is a happy benefit that makes it easier to argue for, not the reason we should be arguing for it. I would agree with the likes of Albert Camus, that there is a part of man that must always be defended. And this is what is lost when we make it all about efficiency.
While axioms will probably never be perfect, I don’t buy that this means we should throw our hands in the air and say it’s all about relative efficiency. Axioms may not be perfect, but deontological defenses of liberty are worth the struggle in my opinion. In the meantime, I’m all for using economic arguments as well, just not in a vacuum.