Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Two Great Qualities No Political Theory Should be Without

But you're a Mac user - you should hate Microsoft!

This comes courtesy of a student of mine who likes to follow me after class and argue politics. I like arguing politics too - so I usually don't mind obliging. But it's a one-sided game with him. He's of the species of humanity who likes to throw tricky questions people's way to see if they'll be able to stay consistent - so our "discussions" are usually me answering his questions. He told me that he likes "arguing with Libertarians," and I guess this is because we put a high premium on philosophical consistency. One of the many things I like about being Libertarian, indeed, is precisely this: it isn't a policy-by-policy pragmatic philosophy at all, but a real philosophically-grounded system of thought.

But hearing the retort quoted above reminded me of two things about Libertarianism I like even more.

The first of these is that it's tolerant - and I firmly believe that is has the distinction of being the only school of political thought that can truly make that claim. If tolerance means roughly "live and let live," then it is safe to say Libertarians are the only group willing to put their money where their mouths are on that score. Take the example above. We were actually discussing how the ethanol subsidy is massively driving up food prices - nothing to do with Microsoft at all. But he quickly changed the subject to CEO compensation. I assume he was going to try to make the case that all the surplus cost of misguided feelgood environmental policies could be passed on to CEOs in the form of paycuts. So I suddenly found myself defending the idea that although I personally agree that Bill Gates is vastly overpaid, he is free to earn whatever Microsoft is willing to pay him (and that this anyway has NOTHING whatever to do with ethanol subsidies that I can see, but such is the train of thought of a Sociology major...). This is when he cut in with the line quoted above.

Simple answer: I DO hate Microsoft - at least, Microsoft in its present incarnation. But what does that have to do with how much Bill Gates earns? Is the idea that I might just not like their products so novel? And what does what Bill Gates earns have to do with what CEOs in general earn? Last I checked, all CEO compensation packages were negotiated individually between those individuals and the companies they work for. And what, for that matter, does ANY of this have to do with the government's ill-thought artificial inflation of the price of corn this year?

But this is exactly my point: to a Socialist, all these things are connected - and that's because Socialists are about as intolerant as they come. To a Socialist like my student, simple preference for Macs is apparently enough to justify the government dictating how much Bill Gates is allowed to earn. The fact that I think Microsoft is bad value for the price is meant to be enough to count on my support for anything they want to do to take the company down a notch. And while I guess that Socialists are the biggest offenders here, I just want to stress that the Fascists and Conservatives really aren't that far behind on this kind of thinking.

Yes, I do hate Microsoft. But I'm willing to live and let live. I express my disapproval by not buying their products. I express my disapproval by trying to persuade my friends not to buy their products. But I don't actually go so far as to MANDATE that people not buy their products - that's a completely different thing. The government is not an instrument for enforcing my buying preferences!

And that - once upon a time - was what "tolerance" was. It was "you go your way, and I'll go mine." It meant that you could disapprove of something without lobbying to ban it. It meant that you could publicly disapprove of something without lobbying to ban it. But these days, I'm not sure if it means that anymore. These days, when you hear someone talking about "tolerance," usually what they mean is "publicly state your complete and unconditional approval of homosexuality or you're fired." Or they mean "publicly state your complete and unconditional approval of affirmative action or you're fired." What they seem to never mean by it anymore is "think what you like, just stay off my turf." Indeed, the whole "tolerance" movement these days is anything but: it is a blatantly intolerant, forced acceptance of a certain set of preferences and prejudices over another. (And yes, they do indeed go so far as to enforce it.)

I like being a Libertarian because we're tolerant in the good, old-fashioned sense. I don't have to like Microsoft to recognize its right to exist. And I don't have to like homosexuality particularly to come to the conclusion that gays have the right to keep on keepin' on. There are, in fact, quite a number of things that I downright just plain don't like that I'm perfectly willing to keep legal.

And yes - as far as I know, Libertarians are the only political group that thinks like this. All the others - well, there just isn't enough time to scroll through all the examples. Conservatives want to ban porn, or marijuana, or alcohol purchases on Sunday, or polygamy. They're not content to let citizens make their own choices on these scores - they disapprove of it, ergo it has to go. Ditto the Socialists. They like gays, and it's not enough just to say so, they want it to be a punishable crime to discriminate against them. They want actual penalties for so-called "hate speech." They want tax money to go to fund art they like. No one can be allowed to smoke if they don't. They want tax money to go to pay for abortions - as though that's not the kind of thing a citizen of conscience should be allowed to refuse to contribute to! ET CETERA.

Which brings me to the other, related, thing that I really like about being Libertarian: Libertarians are realists. That is, we recognize that the world isn't perfect and is never going to be. When all is said and done, what underlies my student's assumption that anyone who hates Microsoft would support government regulation of its internal payscales, I think, is the desire to see everything functioning completely fairly. He's right that Microsoft is a blight. In an ideal world, people wouldn't buy its stuff, and Bill Gates wouldn't be worth a fraction what he is now. And I guess the difference between him and me is that he thinks the government can and should do something the make the world perfect. It should twist and tweak until there are no more overcompensated CEOs, no more successful companies peddling inferior products, etc.

It sounds all very nice - but it can't and won't ever work - and the "other thing" that I like so much about Libertarianism is that it accepts that. This bit about payscales is a typical Socialist tactic. But the idea that anything could ever be completely fair from a global point of view is transparently a fantasy. Any simple thought experiment will confirm this. Take, for example, the fact that in capitalist societies people have to negotiate for their pay. I guess this means that some people will get paid more than they are "really worth" and others less. I mean - superficially it's really convincing to say things like "negotiation skill isn't what they're being hired for - it's unfair that smooth talkers are able to negotiate better contracts on their speaking skills alone when it's really ability that drives the company's engine!" There is, I think, no way to counter this. They're right - it IS unfair. Pay SHOULD be based on merit alone - and negotiation skills sometimes DO play more of a role than they should. But my questions is - what is to be done about this?

The answer, pretty clearly, is "nothing," because all the "things that could be done about it" are worse than the situation itself. Consider what we could do. Rather than allowing people to negotiate for their own salaries - we could do what the Germans do and have centralized payscales that improve primarily with seniority. But it's easy to see that this is even less fair than the system we're replacing - because it COMPLETELY fails to reward merit. What else could we do? Well, I suppose we could implement a recommendation system - whereby new hires get paid what their mentors think is right. But again, it's hard to see how this wouldn't develop into an even further-reaching "good old boy" system than the one we're complaining about as personal connections became more important than merit, etc. The truth is, there's no way out. Life isn't always fair - and Libertarians (and Conservatives as well, I have to admit) accept that. We know it's futile to twist and tweak and hope for a perfect result. Instead, we let the market run and hope (and are usually justified) that it will come up with the nearest thing to "fair" available in the natural world.

Alright, maybe that's a lot to read into one retort in a not-so-serious discussion. But it got me thinking - and those were my thoughts. I am happy with Libertarianism as a philosophy because it is tolerant and realistic - and those are important virtues in a political philosophy. But of course this also illustrates the high bar to entry for Libertarianism into main-stream discourse. That is because people say they're tolerant, and they say they're realistic, but actually they don't know what these things mean. And I guess before Libertarians can have any success as a political movement, we first have to cure people of their annoying predilection for wanting to twist and tweak and meddle until things are "perfect."


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