Rationalism vs Pluralism, once more with feeling!
A central insight of Hayek, Popper & Co. was that our ignorance of human society runs deep. We need the experimentation of an open society not only because different people often want different things, but even more importantly because we’re never sure what works. I generally support, for example, a high degree of legal toleration of behavior that I find personally objectionable. I recognize, though, that others believe that what I think should be tolerated goes too far and threatens social cohesion, or what Buckley called morale. How do we resolve this impasse?
The best answer for conservatives or libertarians is federalism, or more precisely, subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.
The characteristic error of contemporary conservatives in this regard has been a want of prudential judgment in trying to enforce too many social norms on a national basis. The characteristic error of contemporary Libertarianism has been the parallel failure to appreciate that a national rule of “no restrictions on non-coercive behavior” (which, admittedly, is something of a cartoon) contravenes a primary rationale for libertarianism. What if social conservatives are right and the wheels really will come off society in the long run if we don’t legally restrict various sexual behaviors? What if left-wing economists are right and it is better to have aggressive zoning laws that prohibit big-box retailers? I think both are mistaken, but I might be wrong. What if I’m right for some people at this moment in time, but wrong for others or wrong the same people ten years from now? The freedom to experiment needs to include freedom to experiment with different governmental (i.e., coercive) rules.
Now, obviously, there are limits to this. What if some states want to allow human chattel slavery? Well, we had a civil war to rule that out of bounds. Further, this imposes trade-offs on people who happen to live in some family, town or state that limits behavior in some way that they find odious, and must therefore move to some other location or be repressed. But this is a trade-off, not a tyranny.
We live in an imperfect world. Ironically, given the deeply anti-utopian orientation of Hayek and Popper, contemporary Libertarianism has veered off into increasingly utopian speculations disconnected from the practical realities that ought to animate it. At the same time, the Conservative movement has become increasingly ideological about enforcing moral norms. Both could learn a lot from re-engaging with one another.
This brings up one of the most popular documents in this blog's history: Jacob Levy's Liberalism's Divide paper (for which Brian Doss is a self-proclaimed "total pimp"); see below for more posts. Politically, I'm a libertarian, meaning that I generally favor libertarian policies. Epistemically, unlike most libertarians, I'm a pluralist rather than a rationalist. There's a clear limit to human knowledge and without the ability to experiment, we won't get closer to the truth. I have strong opinions but don't believe I have all the answers. When no answers are self-evident, I yield to tradition as a first line heuristic.
Despite being a small rock surrounded by large belligerent nations including communist China, Singapore somehow managed to stay independent and showed the world that a third world country can become one of the richest countries in the world in a single generation through free market policies. Without the ability to carry out this experiment, the world would have less knowledge and be worse off. Few things convince the skeptics more than hard data. When there's a conflict between libertarian policy and federalism, I'll favor federalism 99% of the time. Let a thousand Singapores bloom even if some ultimately wilt. The world will be better off.
Aside from facts are matters of taste and morality, questions which may have no final answer. It wouldn't make much sense for me to proclaim my tastes as univerally correct (though clearly, my taste in television is better than everyone else's). People have their own conceptions of the good life and ought to be allowed to seek them as long as they're able to leave the communities that don't meet their inclinations.
I strongly believe that without federalism, the liberal project is doomed.
Of the Plural and the Rational - Brian Doss
Levy on Pluralist and Rationalist Liberalism - Randall McElroy
We can Allow Individuals to Opt Out - Jonathan Wilde
On Liberty and Liberal Indeterminacy - Brian Doss