Sunday, September 7, 2008

Are libertarians baffled by downshifters?

In his book, “The Freedom Paradox”, Clive Hamilton claims that libertarians are “baffled and distressed” by downshifters (Allen and Unwin, 2008: 22). Downshifters are people who voluntarily decide to reduce their income in order to free up time and energy for other pursuits. In attempting to support his claim, Hamilton poses the question: “If one believes that the world is populated by Homo economicus, rational economic man, what happens to that world when rational economic man freely chooses to transcend himself?”

Let us consider whether downshifting would actually puzzle some hypothetical libertarian whose economic education has been confined to the simplest thought experiments of neoclassical economics that employ the concept of rational economic man (REM). Would such a person have difficulty in incorporating downshifting decisions in such models? No. The REM in such models always choose to forgo some income in order to enjoy more leisure when this enables them to move to higher indifference curves. If our economist could find an appropriate article written by Gary Becker he/she might even be able to demonstrate that REM could transcend themselves (change their own preferences) by making appropriate investments in their “human” capital.

In any case, how many libertarians actually believe that the world is populated by REM? Many economists continue to use the REM concept where they consider that for the purposes at hand the added complexity of more realistic assumptions is not warranted. My guess is that, among mainstream economists, libertarians are less prone than other economists to employ the REM assumption where it is clearly inappropriate to assume that economic actors have perfect knowledge. This is because libertarians recognise the role of markets in integrating decisions of real people who have specialised and limited knowledge. Moreover, many libertarians have been influenced by the writings of Austrian economists who explicitly refrain from employing the REM assumption in their analyses.

Although Hamilton’s book contains quite a few silly claims, the author also develops a thoughtful line of argument to the effect that ethical behaviour needs to be based on inner freedom and a sense of purpose – living close to one’s nature - rather than on reason. Cassandra Wilkinson has written an excellent review article responding to Hamilton’s claims that western nations are descending into misery and moral decay (here). I might write more about some of Hamilton’s other silly claims later, but for the moment I want to focus upon his musings about ethics.

Hamilton’s line of argument is broadly as follows:

  • It is possible to distinguish between three different approaches to wellbeing – the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life. The pleasant life is about seeking pleasure; the good life is about personal growth, capabilities and human flourishing; and the meaningful life is about commitment to a higher cause e.g. pursuit of virtue or selfless moral principles.(This classification is attributed to Martin Seligman, but Seligman’s definition of the meaningful life seems more like Hamilton’s definition of the good life; see here).
  • As Friedrich Hayek recognised, we may be free and yet miserable. Liberty does not mean all good things or the absence of all evils (“Constitution of Liberty”, 1960: 18). We cannot achieve a good life or a meaningful life if we lack inner freedom i.e. if we are slaves to our passions.
  • The decline of the authority of the church has left people unsure where to look for moral guidance. Attempts to build moral systems based on reason, e.g. Kantian and utilitarian theories, develop universal rules that are meant to apply equally to all. “Yet in situations where the moral decision is victimless it is common today for people to adopt the view that, although it would be wrong for them to do a particular thing, they would not condemn others for acting differently” (140). (Thank God, I say! It seems to me that this is an appropriate application of the golden rule to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.)
  • “Through a form or intuition we are able to understand that the inner nature of each of us is identical with the thing-in-itself – the universal substance or subtle essence and that all existence has a unitary nature” (146). “If the universal Self is the subtle essence of each of us, the moral self is the most immediate expression of that universal Self in the phenomenal world. It is the innermost voice of conscience, where all personal interests, social conventions, duties and obligations are left behind” (147).

The final point clearly involves an attempt to grasp at moral insights that stem from the things we have in common with other humans and indeed with all living things. Of necessity, however, humans do not all share the same intuitions about such things. In the words of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl:
“since our humanity is not some amorphous, undifferentiated universal, human flourishing does not have some abstract and universal character. The generic goods that constitute human flourishing only become real, determinate, and valuable when they are given particular form by the choices of flesh-and-blood persons. In reality, the importance and value of these goods is rooted in factors that are unique to each person” (“Norms of Liberty”, 2005: 80).


Anonymous said...

thanks for the nice comment!
unsurprisingly i agree with you completely!
re the universal moral instincts, i think it's a shame that hamilton and others don't get into the darwinist biologists on this - matt ridley's work is excellent on the relaitonship between the 'moral insticts' and evolution.
cassandra wilkinson

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Cassandra. You remind me that I must read more of Ridley's work - after I have read a couple of other books including Moral Markets (edited by Paul Zak).