Questions for Will Wilkinson Concerning Autonomy and Pluralism

Will Wilkinson asserts that libertarians who oppose the government raid on the FLDS do so out of an "unreflective anti-gubmint reaction." In other words, some libertarians simply hate the state so much that they ignore the equally awful (or even worse) behavior by private actors. In fact, Will argues, this error is not merely a function of libertarianism taken too far, but is a necessary consequence of the radical libertarian anarchist position; radical libertarian anarchists must commit this error in order to defend their overall position:

the possibility of insular authoritarian brainwashing communities structured around child rape is a pretty drop-dead objection to the desirability of anarcho-capitalism.

But surely Will realizes that this isn't just a problem for libertarian anarchists, or even for radical libertarians in general. This is a problem for all liberals, of which libertarians are but a subset. As Jacob Levy argues in his must-read Liberalism's Divide, this conflict between promoting pluralism on the one hand, and protecting individual autonomy on the other, is hundreds of years old, long predating libertarianism as a movement or coherent ideology, as well as predating the major split in liberalism between market liberals and welfare liberals. The question of plurality plagues us all. (Chandran Kukathas explains how this conflict of pluralism and autonomy remains even in a world in which libertarians constitute the majority, in Two Constructions of Libertarianism.)

Will seems to recognize that, as someone who often refers to himself as a value pluralist, he has some tough questions of his own in need of answering. Will qualifies many of his arguments in these two posts with terms like "within bounds", or "pluralism has its limits", but he doesn't sketch for us an even rudimentary way to go about doing this. Underestimating or under-enforcing these limits means allowing victims trapped within illiberal sub-communities to suffer great injustices, while overestimating or over-enforcing the proper bounds leads to another sort of problem, as Will acknowledges,

If you can’t figure out how to articulate the difference, then you don’t infer that child abuse is OK. You infer that evangelical home-schooling is child abuse, too — so you’d better be able to articulate the difference.

But Will has given us no reason why, in cases of uncertainty, the default rule should be biased in favor of promoting individual autonomy over promoting pluralism. I personally would much rather take the risk of letting isolated communities victimize their own members than the opposite risk of adopting a social rule whereby those with sufficient political power are free to "reproduce their ideologies and prejudices" upon all members of society, and not just a few sub-communities within it. I might favor adopting this sort of anti-pluralist social rule if I believed that those with sufficient political power will always and everywhere share the same ideology and prejudices that I have, but this would be quite a strange thing for me as a libertarian to believe, given the fact that libertarianism itself is a view held by only an extremely small, politically weak minority.

Randy Barnett took a lot of flak for claiming that libertarianism, if understood solely from the viewpoint of natural rights, has very little if anything to say about foreign policy in general and the Iraq War in particular. I actually agree with Barnett that strict natural rights libertarianism does not necessarily prohibit preemptive military invasion against foreign regimes that systematically victimize their own citizens. Rather, my objection to Barnett is that he dismisses consequentialist libertarian objections to invading Iraq as merely a "matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly." But as Barnett himself recognized in The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism, prudential concerns are intrinsically connected to libertarian ideology and no less important than concerns regarding natural rights. To dismiss prudential concerns as not intrinsically libertarian concerns--as merely concerns over which reasonable libertarians may disagree--runs the risk of defining out of the libertarian movement anyone who refuses to give natural rights primacy over prudential concerns, and Barnett does not want to do this.

Questions of prudence surround not only the decision to invade Iraq, of course, but the decision to invade any foreign regime that systematically victimizes its own citizens, as well as the decision to invade any internal domestic community that systematically victimizes its own members even while it remains at peace with the outside world.

As I noted previously in The FLDS and the Iraq War, there seems to be a tension between opposition to invading Iraq and support for invading the FLDS. Of course, the FLDS is a domestic regime that (allegedly) systematically victimized its own members, while Iraq under Saddam was a foreign regime that systematically victimized its own citizens. But libertarians, especially cosmopolitan, universalist ones like Will, usually don't make such strong distinctions based on the sovereignty of nation states or the nationality of the victim; an illiberal regime is an illiberal regime no matter where it is geographically located.

Couldn't one say that, on prudential grounds, it was unwise to invade Iraq but it was not unwise to invade the FLDS? Sure, but then you must admit that the difference between Iraq and the FLDS is a difference in degree and not a difference in kind. Had the FLDS been larger and stronger relative to the U.S. government, or had Iraq been smaller or weaker relative to the U.S. government, prudence would advise us differently. Such a realist position, however, acknowledges and seemingly approves of the fact that the more powerful will follow a policy of invading the less powerful so long as the costs of invasion are not too high, which in turn gives the less powerful an incentive that they might not otherwise have had to stockpile weapons in order to discourage future invasion, ala the Branch Dividians or North Korea's claim to have acquired nuclear weapons. This increases the likelihood that conflicts between micro-societies and the macro-societies in which they live will escalate into large scale violence - a conflict that might have been avoided had the macro society chosen a policy of persuasion instead (think Radio Free Europe). Prudential decisions to invade may not be so prudential in the long run, once we consider all of the unintended second-order effects.

Will could also respond that governments are a necessary tool for solving public goods problems, and the size of various government agencies, jurisdictions, and functions must be large enough to get the job done and no larger. So it makes sense for trade agreements to be made on a continental or global level, while zoning restrictions are best made on a local level. It follows that the Iraqi people sadly fall outside the concentric public goods solving circle which the U.S. military protects, while the FLDS falls within the proper jurisdiction.

I still don't think this properly captures a distinction that libertarians are likely to respect. Why not expand the concentric public goods circle of military defense to include protecting the rights of Iraqis? The typical answer is that Iraqis don't pay U.S. taxes. But the U.S. government provides many services to people who don't pay taxes. Further, if money is the problem, just make the Iraqis pay for the intervention; after all, if we are able to confidently determine that enough Iraqis want us to invade and liberate them to make this rescue justified, then surely we are also able to confidently determine if enough Iraqis are willing to help pay to defray the costs of their own rescue.

I'll leave Will with this thought experiment: Imagine that, tomorrow, some anthropologists announce that they have just discovered an indigenous, aboriginal, primitive tribe living in some previously unexplored part of Iowa, perhaps so well-hidden by corn fields that we had never heard of them and they had never heard of us, until now.

We tell the village elders (after learning how to communicate with them) that their society is primitive compared to ours, that we have advanced technology, medicine, food production, and political freedoms, all of which lead to much longer and richer lives than they currently enjoy. We kindly invite them to join us and enjoy the fruits of the enlightenment. We even offer them special programs to help them get accustomed to a new way of life.

Despite all of these massive benefits, only a select few villagers choose to take us up on our generous offer and exercise their physical freedom to leave the village. Most of the people in the village decide that they prefer its traditional way of life, despite the alleged benefits of the outside world. Some of them are fully informed adults who are legitimately familiar with the costs and benefits associated with living in the two societies, and nevertheless prefer the thick sense of community that their traditional culture, rituals, myths, religion, sexual mores, child-raising philosophy, and gender relations all help create.

Others are not so well-informed; some are too young to make a decision for themselves, so their parents make the decision for them. Others fear that they will be punished in the afterlife by their vengeful gods if they reject the traditions of their ancestors in favor of the attractive but ultimately empty glitz and glamour of the modern world. Still others understand that the gods don't exist, but fear that the culture and traditions of their tribe run so deep and are so intimately tied to the fiber of their being that they simply cannot abandon it, whatever their own rationality might tell them; without the proper upbringing, they just don't feel prepared to handle all of the new challenges of living in an advanced society.

Clearly the children and even many of the adults are not truly free in the psychological sense, even if they are free in the physical sense to walk outside their village. Further, even if we ignore the massive suffering and loss of quality-adjusted life-years associated with a complete lack of modern medicine and food, our modern sensibilities are also deeply disturbed by many of their cultural practices: they engage in polygamy, marry off their girls at a very young age, and send many of their young boys off on dangerous, unnecessary, often life-threatening quests to hunt for native Iowan wildlife and prove their manhood, thereby thinning out the number of male competitors for women - a necessity if the tribe is to remain polygamous.

They do not teach their children to read (for they have no written language); since their tribe is the only remaining community in the world that speaks their language, it is very difficult for tribe members to communicate, even if they were allowed to, with the outside world. They ingrain into their children at a very young age an intense fear of vengeful, jealous gods, who watch their every move, will punish them severely if they deviate from the tribe's traditions, and who, above all, may not be questioned. Independent, skeptical thought is discouraged; the capacity to live independent, self-chosen lives--lives that differ from the ideologies and prejudices of their tribe--is severely curtailed. They also have a horrible sense of fashion.

Do we colonize the savages for their own good, forcibly preventing them from engaging in certain practices, on the grounds that if they knew what we know, they most likely would not have chosen that life for themselves? Or do we sadly resign ourselves to respecting their (admittedly unchosen) decision to live a life of quiet desperation, perhaps setting up institutions aimed at communicating with, persuading, and acclimating them to make it more likely that they will choose to leave of their own accord, and that as the tribe hemorrhages members, it will eventually wither away to the dustbin of history?

Given your answer to the above question, does it really matter - should it really matter to us, as libertarians or as liberals, if this tribe is indigenous to America, or if instead of Iowa it was discovered in Sub-Saharan Africa? Does it matter if not every current member of the tribe was born into the tribe? What if the tribe accepts new members? What if the tribe recruits new members? What if the tribe isn't new at all, but a throwback to older tribes - e.g. a group of like-minded, primitivist, luddite, religious fundamentalists formed an artificial tribe with all of the same characteristics as the one described above?

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Unreflective anti-gubmint reaction

Meanwhile, there are many other levels to the negative response to the raid. For example, while Mr. Wilkinson seems to buy the government's story about what was going on, some libertarians are deeply suspicious of it. For, I would argue, very good reason. For starters, it appears that the call that sparked the raid was a bogus call, a hoax, concocted by an enemy of the cult. Almost 500 children were forcibly taken from their parents on the basis of a hoax. This does not inspire trust.

Will and I are both

Will and I are both primarily concerned here with the more general argument of what should happen in cases when these kind of allegations are true, and not as much in this case in particular, for which the allegations are very likely false. Of course, the risk of false accusations does have something to do with the more general case.