Re: `capitalist' character values

From: Russell Blackford (
Date: Sat Jul 21 2001 - 07:13:00 MDT

Damien said

>what I'm addressing is the issue Lee raised: the social merits
>of (as I paraphrased it, perhaps unfairly) `inculcating the personal values
>appropriate to the frontier or the 1930s or 1950s'. That is a broader
>social issue, which could only take effect over the next couple of decades.
>I'm saying that with the Spike on the way (which, granted, you dispute) we
>probably don't have time--and, more to the point, that subsidizing the
>incompetent poor at the risk of ruining their moral fiber is a chance worth
>taking, since their moral fiber will be toast anyway.

I'm not actually too worried about paying my taxes for "the incompetent
poor" or for public infrastructure. On other lists, I often feel like the
token mad libertarian, but on this one I sometimes feel a bit like the token

I'd support a guaranteed minimum wage if we could get the economics of it to
work, which I can hear a number of people on the list say is a big "if". In
a world of abundance produced by nanotech, it might not be such a big "if"
at all.

I made a comment earlier that I could not see a principled way to stop
governments from spending money on schools etc. J.R. shot back a remark
about toll roads and private schools, but my thoughts were not about whether
there are practical private alternatives to public infrastructure. It was
about the central question of political philosophy: the limits of political
obligation. I actually think that it's damn hard justifying the state *at

Now, minarchists want to justify the state but only in so far as it provides
protection of life and property, enforces contracts, and keeps out the bad
guys in the geographic region next door (or across the other side of the
world these days). A minarchist state would have a military, police, a
minimalist legal system and a system of courts, but not much more. For
example, Nozick's opening chapters of _Anarchy, State and Utopia_ try to
steer a middle course between philosophical anarchism and Leviathan, and to
justify something like this. I am pretty convinced that they fail. See
Robert Paul Wolff's classic article "Robert Nozick's Derivation of the
Minimal State" and see what you think.

I think that the supposedly knock-out, in-principle arguments for
libertarianism or minarchism don't work. As far as I can see, we are left
with a choice: either we agree with the philosophical anarchists that the
problem of political obligation is basically not solvable at all; or we
solve it using underlying concepts that are going to give the state more
discretion to pass laws, spend money and raise taxes than some of us might

I don't have a clear solution, but I think we are forced back to very deep
values such as benevolence and care, as well as the key liberal value of
freedom (which needs a lot of unpacking, even if we confine ourselves, as
I'm inclined to do, to "negative freedom"). In the upshot, I favour severely
limited government but don't rule out on in-principle grounds, i.e. grounds
arising from a theory of political obligation, a range of government
activity that goes well beyond minarchy. I do reject a lot of government
activity that other people (off this list!) consider legitimate, but I'm
afraid that the arguments I make are fairly complex.

I add that the problem of political obligation is at least semi-independent
of the economic virtues of either pure capitalism or the current
mercantilist system (corporations in cahoots with governments). I can live
with the mercantilist system quite happily but don't see how it can be
*justified* <g>. Indeed, some kinds of libertarianism would lead to the
conclusion that an unregulated capitalist system is the answer, but that the
corporate form is not legitimate.

>From my viewpoint, all this is by the by. I've been trying to keep out of
the debate about political and economic systems, even though I am interested
in the issue and have sufficient libertarian sympathies to be happy enough
in the electronic company of Lee, Daniel, Spike, Mike and J.R., etc. I'll
continue to resist getting too caught in this thread.

Anyway, when it gets down to the attitude we should take to the "incompetent
poor", my heart is with Damien, wherever my jurisprudential theorising may
be. I'm not too worried about taking away incentives and so on where I see
people in real trouble. I might run a pretty tough welfare state if I were
in charge but I certainly wouldn't abolish the welfare state.

None of the above has as much rigour as I'd like, but it'd take several
thousand words to nail this down and I, um, don't have a lot of incentive
<g> to write them at the moment, when my thoughts are currently more focused
on bioethical issues.


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