Yesterday, the Adam Smith Institute declared that it is no longer a libertarian think-tank. Instead, it is a neoliberal think-tank:
Although I would have much preferred them to call themselves a ‘liberal’ think-tank and to thereby rededicate themselves to advocating Adam Smith’s “obvious and simple system of natural liberty,” I don’t think that much emphasis should be put on their choice of adjective. ‘Libertarian,’ ‘neoliberal,’ and ‘liberal’ mean too many things to too many people to have a definite preference for one. Whatever adjective helps the Adam Smith Institute advance liberty the most effectively is the adjective they should use. (That being said, ‘neoliberal’ has too much of a whiff of the class of people that Nassim Taleb titles the ‘intellectual but idiot’ for me to go anywhere near the adjective for my own description.)
In the coming out piece, “I’m a neoliberal. Maybe you are too,” Sam Bowman enumerates a canon of beliefs for a would-be neoliberal. The list is worth reading and comparing to one’s own belief. Here, I shall focus on one particular profession, that of being ‘a liberal consequentialist.’ Mr. Bowman writes:
A system is justified if it is the one that best allows people to live the lives that they want to live, or makes them happiest or more satisfied than any other. There are no inherent rights that override this. People’s wellbeing is all that matters, and generally individuals are best at defining what is best for themselves.
I’m very sympathetic to the idea that the notion of ‘right’ in modern thought is best abandoned. Not only have the list of rights, which were once safely limited to life, liberty and property, been expanded to include everything from a $15.00 per hour wage and high-speed internet, but the modern world has entirely lost the plot context of early-modern rights talk. Without a notion of a creating Deity who bestowed rights from without the system, people now think of themselves as being the authors of their own rights within the system and that confusion has lead to the unnecessary multiplication of rights. Myself, I would much prefer that we talk about virtues and which institutional ecosystems best promote human flourishing.
The troubling thing is that Mr. Bowmen has made no such aretaic turn. Instead, he swears by the mushy word that is ‘wellbeing.’ Although ‘wellbeing’ lends itself well to quantitative studies, it is a notion of human flourishing that can muddle the very aspect of human nature that makes liberty worthwhile: Individuality. A life spent lying on a couch being pumped full of soma, although it may measure highly in wellbeing, is not worth living and can scarcely be given the dignity of being human. As John Stuart Mill persuasively argued in On Liberty, individuality is a necessary factor for human flourishing and that any system that squashes individualism, even if it does so for the wellbeing of society, is despotism. By providing each person with a private sphere to pursue his own vision of the good life, liberty protects individualism from any would-be despots. The language of rights, however much it may be muddled and confused, still provides a persuasive rhetorical focal point for defending the private sphere as integral for virtue.
Asserting that “generally individuals are best at defining what is best for themselves” is not a robust substitute for that rhetoric of rights. Here, I must pursue the obvious question: To what degree does ‘generally’ hold? Is it 90% of the time? 99% 50% Surely an exact estimation is impossible, but I would like to know just how confident the author is. I simply don’t think that ‘generally’ establishes a robust presumption of liberty. Instead, I think that it provides a very easy standard to vault over. “Generally people choose well for themselves, but in not in the case of sugary drips of more than 16 oz.” “Generally people choose well for themselves, but not in the case of pornography or marijuana.” With a legion of Harvard-grad IYI’s, any regulatory agency can make easy work of proving that people can’t choose well for themselves in the particular case in question. When decoupled with the rhetorical focal point of rights, ‘generally’ provides but a fig-leaf of protection to individual liberty.
How do I think we defend liberty? I think it’s by advocating, as a matter of principle corroborated by historical experience, that Adam Smith’s natural system of liberty is the best way of ordering society and that it orders society for everyone’s benefit. Following John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, liberals should assert as a matter of principle that: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Maybe we mean it only 99% of the time, but that categorical statement provides a far more robust defense of liberty that a probabilistic one.