Thursday, 13 November 2008

Right Intuition

I've written a few posts here previously querying the beliefs and motives underlying political positions - it's a topic I am intrigued by, but rambling on about collectivism and 'mediocracy' conspicuously failed to lead to improved understanding. So, I thought I'd try a different, more introspective tack this time.

So I asked myself: What are the core beliefs that underlie my own, right-libertarian world-view? And this is the answer I arrived at: Three principal convictions that guide the way I, and perhaps, speculating, other libertarians and conservatives, see the world.

The first of these is the most important, and the other two are derived from it. It is a basic theory of human nature. I'm going to refer to it as 'the Rationality Principle'. It states that:

People act out of rational self-interest
You might recognise this as the definition of economic man, or 'Homo economicus'.

The Homo economicus assumptions may be recognised as an extreme - a caricature if you will - but the underlying principle is what is important, and this is viewed as essentially correct and explanatory of how people interact and function in the world. One consequence of this principle is that, as one of my fellow right-libertarian bloggers is fond of saying, incentives matter; both negative (deterrents) and positive.

The first crucial derivation from this is the following, which I refer to as 'the Responsibility Principle'. It states that:
Individuals are responsible for their own actions (unless they are insane)

The second crucial derivation is clearly related to the above. It is 'the Self-determination Principle', and states that:
Individuals are the prime movers in the determination of their destiny

Now, these principles are not absolute, but they are visceral, core convictions that may be modified or qualified (but not overturned) through a process of intellectualising.

If you consider many of the typical arguments made by 'right-wingers', particularly libertarians, they can be considered in terms of at least one of these three principles. For instance, debates about crime and punishment typically see right-libertarians and conservatives proposing tougher sentences and demanding less leniency in court. The rationale for this follows the first 2 principles, specifically that 1) Incentives matter, and tough sentences will act as a deterrent to potential offenders in the future and 2) Criminals are responsible for their own actions; knew they were doing wrong; and committed the crime anyway, so they deserve punishment and no sympathy. The positions opposed most strongly by right-libertarians and conservatives, conversely, are often those which contradict the principles.

Arguments that put 'society' rather than the individual at the centre are not compatible with the principles and tend to be dismissed as 'collectivist' or 'socialist', but in reality they don't get through. It just doesn't make sense to someone like me, in possession of the 'libertarian worldview' based on these 3 principles, to talk that way. Arguments that consider people in terms of one or more of the groups/categories they can be assigned to instead of as discrete individuals, for instance the feminist side of the 'gender pay inequality' debate, ring similarly hollow.

Now, I expect one of two types of responses to this post. As I suggested before, I struggle to comprehend that anyone could not accord with the principles delineated above, even though they make propositions and take positions which appear to contradict them. Either 1) Everyone fundamentally accords with them - even if they give the impression that they don't in their rhetoric - and non-rightists are just prepared to go further in modifying them than libertarians are; 2) People with opposing political positions do have a profoundly different worldview. I am prepared to accept that either of these may be the case...


Patrick Vessey said...

Just a quick note on your first supposition. I have little doubt that man acts rationally -- as far as that specific man is concerned. However, that does not lead to Homo economicus, at least not to a neoclassical Homo economicus.

The problem with neoclassical economics is that it is largely deterministic, and it attempts to straitjacket man's behaviour according to certain assumptions. That is, the economist presumes that the actions of the economic actor are (almost?) totally predictable, and they compound this error by having a very narrow set of criteria in consideration when making their assumptions about what behaviour will result in any given situation.

The short version of the above is that neoclassical economists treat their discipline like a hard, physical science, whereas economic activity is (quite obviously!) a social science, if we deign to grant it the status of any kind of 'science'.

Rational choice models are based upon several false assumptions, a topic that is dissected in an accessible manner in Fullbrook's "What's Wrong With Economics", and I would heartily recommend the book. You can get a flavour of what ground it covers from this summary.

QT said...

@patrick: Thanks for this response. What you are saying is something I agree with. I did hint at this when I said "The Homo economicus assumptions may be recognised as an extreme - a caricature if you will...", but you have really fleshed it out which is great.

What did you think of the rest of the post?

Mark Wadsworth said...

That's all well and good, but you must work on your grammar: "it's a topic I am intrigued by"

Try not to end a sentence with a preposition, how about: "it's a topic that intrigues me"?

As to what PV says, just ignore it. In the grander scheme of things, people do what they "think is best". Remember that this is self-referential, the only person who can judge what is best is the person who made the decision (and is either happy with decision and outcome; or is unhappy and decides to try something different next time).

By trial and error and infinite iterations, we arrive at a situation where there are 6 billion people in the world, all making infinite decisions every day, some minor, some major; some that lead to the desired outcome, some that don't; and by the collective experience and memory of those 6 billion people, those 6 billion people will, in the medium term, guide themselves to the least-bad outcome.

John Demetriou said...

What an excellent article!

Very informative and helpful to read. As a Right-Libertarian myself, I enjoy reading the philosophical musings of those who are on my wavelength.

Thanks for this piece.



Patrick Vessey said...


Confused by your comment urging Ian to ignore mine. From what you wrote it's not because you disagree (i.e. that neoclassical Homo economicus with his perfect knowledge etc. doesn't exist), so what was your point?

CathElliott said...

Thanks for this Ian, I found it a really interesting insight into libertarian thinking.

"People with opposing political positions do have a profoundly different worldview"

Yes, I think we do. I read each of your 3 statements and my immediate reaction was: "No, I don't agree, that's not how it works at all."

I'm constantly intrigued as to how/why this happens, what is it about our different experiences that leads to us holding these different worldviews. But I suppose the libertarian response would be that different life experiences shouldn't affect any of this, because we're all logical, rational beings unaffected by our environments etc......

Hmmm. I'm baffled.

Macx Stirner said...

Why should being logical preclude being affected by one's environment?

I suspect that people who are naturally good become egoists, as they're not afraid to take the responsiblity upon themselves for making a better world. Bad people become altruists, so they can pass responsibility off to that great shibboleth, "society". Perhaps this division over whether people control their own destinies or not is a subconscious defence mechanism for bad people? "Yes, I am a total hypocrite who fails to act in the way I demand others do, [cf. Polly Toynbee, Diane Abbot] but that's not my fault!"

The gaping flaw in this argument being that people like Cath Elliott never see themselves as being totally irrational and foolish, only everyone else. But perhaps this is also a justification mechanism? "I don't strictly need to follow doctrine, as I am smart enough to serve the 'greater good' at the same time."

CathElliott said...

macx stirner - "The gaping flaw in this argument being that people like Cath Elliott never see themselves as being totally irrational and foolish, only everyone else."

Nonsense. I'm as capable of being irrational and foolish as the next person :)

And I don't think I'd ever argue that society or environment or whatever are entirely to blame for a person's situation in life, or for all the bad choices they may have made. That would assume that none of us is capable of overcoming those external influences and taking back some control over our lives, which I believe very strongly is something we're all capable of doing.

I think where we differ is that I think some people need a bit of help getting there, of reaching that point where they feel they do have the right to make their own choices and where they feel that they can choose to do things differently, whereas my interpretation of the libertarian position (correct me if I'm wrong)is that 'help' in this context would be deemed interference and 'nannying.'

Libertarianism has always struck me as being an ideology that can only have come from, and be supported by, those who enjoy significant privilege, as it seems to presuppose that everyone is in the same place as them, enjoys the same rights as them, and is as free to carve out their own destinies as them. My own view is that we're nowhere near that yet, although it's certainly something worth striving for.

Irrational Steve said...


I remain unconvinced, sadly, that there is any innate contradiction between believing in the fundamental right of an individual to the maximum degree of liberty and believing that as individuals we are morally beholden to act in various "collectivist" ways for the benefit of ourselves and each other.

I may act rationally every now and again:-), but I'd be quite frankly insulted if I was accused of predominantly acting in my own rational (economic!) self-interest.

The above sentences may be trite and flippant but I hope they go some way towards explaining why so many of us "libertarians" will never be the "Libertarians" of the Right.

Tiresias said...

"Individuals are the prime movers in the determination of their destiny"

This is obviously not true. If it strikes you as such in the UK, that is only because wealth is not too unevenly distributed. Clearly you would not dispute, though, that a child born in Mogadishu and one born in Hampstead can equally 'determine their destiny'. The key determining factor of someone's destiny is what society they are born into, and where in that society they are born. This not an argument for massive redistribution, but instead for a softening of libertarianism with a sense of charity. I sympathise with the right libertarian point of view, but my problem with it is that it is often used as a knife to cut the burden of common human decency from one's shoulders. Care and humility, the sense that 'there but for the grace of god', should temper the more strident individualistic elements of the libertarian creed.

Macx Stirner said...

"a softening of libertarianism with a sense of charity."

As I've mentioned before, "libertarians" are more charitable than most of the others I've known. Libertarians think that they are under no "moral" obligation to give, and yet they give much. Leftists think that they are morally obliged to give up a vast proportion of their own income (or rather, they believe that "Man", the great spook, is obliged to, which is not the same as they themselves), and yet they give little. This is for the reasons I outlined above.

As for "determining one's own destiny", well, block-quotation time:

That a society (e. g. the society of the State) diminishes my liberty offends me little. Why, I have to let my liberty be limited by all sorts of powers and by every one who is stronger; nay, by every fellow-man; and, were I the autocrat of all the Russians, I yet should not enjoy absolute liberty. But ownness I will not have taken from me. And ownness is precisely what every society has designs on, precisely what is to succumb to its power.

The issue is not whether one is "free" or not, but whether one "owns one's self". Whether the individual is the ultimate arbiter of all right and wrong, or whether he must bow before some religious principle (usually the Christian religious principle nowadays, even among avowed atheists - c'est la vie!)

Macx Stirner said...

"I'd be quite frankly insulted if I was accused of predominantly acting in my own rational (economic!) self-interest."

Are you mad? I ask merely for information. Are you clinically insane? Do you make all your decisions based on the toss of a coin? Are you as likely to jump off a bridge as to walk across it? I only ask because I can't imagine how someone would be wilfully irrational to this extent. Remember, "rational" means "makes decisions according to some principle", not "reasonable/sensible". You're telling me that you'd be insulted if I claimed that you thought about decisions at all? You'd prefer me to assume that you have no criteria for decision-making? Such people are usually confined to insane asylums.

Anonymous said...

"Such people are usually confined to insane asylums."

Actually most of them usually found commenting on a blog somewhere...

Anonymous said...

Or, to paraphrase the great man himself:

"Is not all the stupid chatter of our blogs the babble of fools who ...only seem to go about free because the madhouse in which they walk takes in so broad a space?"

Present company excluded, of course Ian. :-)

TheFatBigot said...

I'm not sure I can agree with your first principle, Mr QT, namely "People act out of rational self interest". The trouble I have with it is the inclusion of "rational".

Some do what they think is in their self-interest and have no care for the consequences their acts might have for others.

Some define their self-interest by how their acts affect others because they perceive a benefit to others as being in their own interest.

Most combine the two by balancing the benefit to themselves against the detriment to others and decide how to act according to the balance which seems right at the time.

In each case the person is acting according to what they perceive to be best as dictated by their own standards and their own judgment.

To describe their choices as "rational" adds nothing. They are simply choices taken out of self-interest as defined by the person taking the decision.

Macx Stirner said...

Remember, TFB, "rational" means "choosing", not "sensible".

QT said...

My use of the word 'rational' was perhaps loose. All that I meant by it is "people do things for a reason". Their reasoning is not necessarily sensible!

It's quite clear to me that one person's definition(s) of a word such as 'rational' differs slightly from the next person's. Macx Stirner writes: "Remember, "rational" means "makes decisions according to some principle", not "reasonable/sensible", which accords with my usage of the word, but conflicts with some dictionary definitions, e.g.
1. agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible.

My usage of the word was intended to mean something more along the lines of 'following an internal logic' (for instance, someone might consult their astrologer because they are hoping to find out what lies in their future. This is not sensible behaviour I'm sure you agree, but it does have a rationale for the individual concerned).

Patrick, Mark, John, Cath, Steve and TFB: Thanks for your comments on this post; and I hope you have found the post and ensuing discussion interesting.

cabalamat said...

Mak Wadsworth: Try not to end a sentence with a preposition

That is the sort of prescription up with which I will not put.

Ian said...

You do realise you're posting on a thread from almost two years ago?

Come and join me on my new blog, The Hand & Mouse