Utilitarian, Shmutilitarian

In Jonathan's post "Kinsley on protectionism", in response to my complaint about utilitarian arguments, my co-blogger Randall McElroy opines "... John Q. Public is more receptive to utilitarian arguments than to Mises In One Lesson". I can't comment on Mises In One Lesson, whatever that is. I know that many people agree with Randall, but I can only speak to what convinced me that free trade is good.

I don't really have a clue what John Q. Public is receptive to. I think part of the problem is that John Q. Public doesn't exist, and I think it might be a mistake to behave as though he's who I'm talking to. If I try to talk to "the average person" I'm talking to a fucking statistical abstraction, which is empirically indistiguishible from talking to my imaginary friend.

I don't like utilitarian arguments because I think they confuse cause and effect. The reason I think free trade is good is because it is compatible with human freedom. Any deviation from free trade necessarily violates individual rights. The fact that free trade results in prosperity, wealth and an increasing standard of living is evidence that my theory of human freedom is at least partly correct. It is quite literally the Universe making good on the old proverb that "being good is its own reward." What other standard of evidence could prove that something is Good?

Utilitarian arguments seem to turn the logic of the situation (as I understand it) on its head. The good outcome (prosperity) is proposed as the reason for adopting the good policy (free trade), when in fact the good outcome is the result of the real reason, the necessity of respecting individual rights. I think that utilitarian arguments obscure the fundamental issue: the theory that human freedom is the wellspring of everything that humans consider good. If you think of the general (L/l)ibertarian/anarchist definition of human rights, i.e. the right to life, liberty and property, as a scientific theory, what freedom-minded folks are really proposing to every other human is to join them in an scientific experiment they wish to perform on themselves.

And isn't that what the commies did? Didn't they call the Soviet Union a "grand experiment"?

I think I might see a terrible flaw in my theory. The commies actually succeeded in performing their experiment. If my moral theory is so great, why is it less successful than the lousy commie theory? I haven't been able to convince people to form a society based on my theory. Not only that, but people have been advocating theories similar to mine for a really long time, and still have not succeeded.

But wait. Is that really true? Were the commies actually successful? They were indisputibly successful in performing their experiment, but not because they convinced all the experimental subjects to try it out--they only had to convince a small number of people that their theory was true, and then those True Believers railroaded whole nations into their experiment at gunpoint. The outcome of their experiment is impossible to ignore.

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