Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cynicism about government does not help the libertarian cause

TLF has been much less interesting since Tim Lee left, and this piece by J. Harper is the sort of thing that is reducing my desire to keep the TLF feed in my Reader. I'm not going to address the ostensible main thesis of the piece, but I just want to comment on one aspect that strikes me as dramatically misguided:

I’m a person who notices premises, and Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement”—unvarnished access to government data—”is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

First, there's an elementary error of logic here. The proposition

"change" and "pushing faith in our political system off the cliff" are in opposition

does not in any way entail that

"improving faith in the political system" is the "only thing that qualifies as change"
Political change and faith in the political system are variables in a very high-dimensional space, and the observation that they converge at the origin does not entail that every single increase in one is correlated with an increase in the other. Or in less math-metaphorical terms, even if you grant Lessig's premise, there might be a large number of changes which slightly reduce faith in our political system, or hold faith in our political system constant, and this would still not contradict Lessig's statement. (N.b. I say this as someone who thinks that "faith" in our political system is about as misguided as any other kind of faith.)

But never mind that.

The point I really want to make is that Harper seems to think that cynicism about the political system is in some way helpful to the libertarian cause. I'm not exactly a libertarian but this strikes me as completely wrong. Cynicism breeds two things: (1) apathy and (2) shameless exploitation. A population that is truly cynical about politics leads to even greater disengagement plus even greater corruption than prevails in the ordinary course of government.

Libertarians are not cynical about politics. A true cynic would adopt the essentially nihilistic stance of today's Republican Party leadership, whose political strategy is basically

  • Use the government to enrich one's political allies.
  • Sabotage any attempt to use government as an instrument to enhance the general welfare.
  • Distract people from the former two points by a systematic campaign of deceitful propaganda relating to irrelevancies.

On the contrary, principled libertarians are in fact extremely idealistic about the possibility of government being reformed in ways that either enhance the general welfare (in the case of utilitarian libertarians) or are more respectful of the libertarian conception of natural rights (in the case of natural-rights libertarians).*

In short, true cynics either become players in the game or stop playing; libertarians hate the game. And hating the game requires a certain belief in the possibility of a better game. Basically, Harper seems to be deeply confused about the distinction between procedural and substantive liberalism.

Oh, all right, I'll say a little bit about the primary thesis of the piece. I don't read TNR and I don't want to start, but my view on transparency is more or less in line with Aaron Swartz's: exposure is necessary but it's not going to change things without the development of social practices and norms which increase civic engagement.

*Of course I disagree that actually existing libertarianism does either of these things but that doesn't have anything to do with how libertarians justify their own beliefs.

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