Book/Article Reviews

Toleration and Freedom From Harm

My new book, Toleration and Freedom From Harm: Liberalism Reconceived, is now available from Routledge and on Amazon.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the views I defend in it, including my defense of parental licensing.  I also offer a refinement of my previous conceptual analysis of toleration and a detailed explanation of my (Feinbergian) account of harm as well as explanation as to how I think we ought to understand the harm principle.  That provides a basis for my view regarding the moral limits of toleration of cultural differences and toleration internationally as well as (of course) the limits of toleration of individual behavior.  Those limits, I think, are generally limits any libertarian should be happy with.

Here’s the advertisement:

Toleration matters to us all. It contributes both to individuals leading good lives and to societies that are simultaneously efficient and just. There are personal and social matters that would be improved by taking toleration to be a fundamental value. This book develops and defends a full account of toleration—what it is, why and when it matters, and how it should be manifested in a just society. Cohen defends a normative principle of toleration grounded in a new conception of freedom as freedom from harm. He goes on to argue that the moral limits of toleration have been reached only when freedom from harm is impinged. These arguments provide support for extensive toleration of a wide range of individual, familial, religious, cultural, and market activities. Toleration Matters will be of interest to political philosophers and theorists, legal scholars, and those interested in matters of social justice.  [I had toyed with calling the book Toleration Matters.]



National Sovereignty and Immigration

Jay: “I advocate open borders.”
Lots of people Left and Right: “What, you don’t believe in national sovereignty?”
Jay: “Well, no, but even if I did, invoking national sovereignty doesn’t resolve the issue.”

Many people think something like the following argument is sound:
1. States have a right to national sovereignty.
2. National sovereignty includes a right to determine who may pass borders.
3. Therefore, national sovereignty precludes open borders.

In this argument, premise 2 does all the work. Most laypeople will just present premise 1 and immediately jump to the conclusion, 3: “Nations have a right to national sovereignty; therefore, they have a right to close or restrict their borders to immigrants.”

However, the problem with this argument, which proponents rarely notice, is that it doesn’t specify why national sovereignty includes this right to restrict freedom but not others. The restrictionist’s argument can be parodied as follows:

Jay: “I advocate free speech, freedom of lifestyle, sexual freedom, free trade, pharmaceutical freedom, and freedom of conscience.”
Illiberal respondent: “What, you don’t believe in national sovereignty?”
Jay: “Well, again, no, I don’t, but even if I did, invoking national sovereignty doesn’t resolve the issue.”

As this dialogue illustrates, it would seem to be a non-starter, or at least not very illuminating, to argue against other liberal freedoms on the grounds that nations or states enjoy national sovereignty. After all, the liberal could just say, “I believe in national sovereignty, but nations have sovereignty over only a limited range of issues. They do not have legitimacy or authority to eliminate free speech, sexual freedom, and so on. The dispute between you (the illiberal) and me isn’t over whether nations have sovereignty, but over what they have sovereignty. So let’s hear your real argument. Please stop pounding the table.”

The defender of open borders can say the same thing. “Sure, nations have sovereignty, within certain limits set by justice. I presume you agree. So, now let’s move on to the actual dispute, which is over whether people have a right to emigrate/immigrate and to what degree nations may restrict that. Please stop invoking sovereignty as if you were making an independent argument rather than just begging the question.”


“The weight of the words,” and some talks

I have a new essay up at Niskanen: “The weight of the words.

A few talks and workshops on the west coast:

Today, Stanford, Political Theory Workshop: “Justice in Babylon”
Monday 2/12, UCSD, “Irregular Liberty”
Tuesday University of San Diego (through the good graces of BHL team captain Matt Zwolinski), “Justice in Babylon”
Wednesday 2/28, Mont Hamilton/ Bastiat Society of San Jose, 11:30 am, TBA (the announcement has borrowed the same title as my evening lecture but as I understand it that’s not the actual plan).
Wednesday 2/28 5:15 pm, San Jose State University, Black Liberty Matters


Two Genetic Arguments

Some people think this is a good argument against school vouchers:

Vouchers Are Racist
1. Many the people who originally defended school vouchers decades ago did so because they wanted to reinforce racial segregation/prevent racial integration. [Corrupt semi-historian Nancy MacLean continually lies to the public that James Buchanan had this motive, but presumably some people actually did, even if historical documents show that Buchanan in fact supported integration.]

2. If some of the original supporters of school vouchers did so because they believed vouchers would reinforce racial segregation, then supporting vouchers is racist.

3. Therefore, supporting vouchers is racist.

On its face, this is a silly argument–after all, it could turn out that the original supporters were wrong. Perhaps vouchers turn out to actually reduce segregation. If we care about segregation, we’d want to check; we wouldn’t just assume the original supporters got the facts right.

But no matter. What I find odd is that certain people on the Left find the Vouchers Are Racist argument sound, but then at the same time do not accept this parallel argument:

Minimum Wage Laws Are Classist, Racist, and Eugenicist

1. The economists who first proposed minimum wage laws did so because they believed these laws would cause mass unemployment among whom they regarded as the dregs of society. They wanted to starve them out and thus improve the gene pool. [Unlike MacLean’s fictions about Buchanan, this is actually true. See  here and here.]

2. If the economists who first proposed minimum wage laws did so because they believed these laws would starve the poor, then supporting minimum wage laws is classist, racist, and eugenicist.

3. Therefore, supporting minimum wage laws is classist, racist, and eugenicist.

This second argument has the same structure as the first. The main difference is that premise 1 is clearly true in the second argument but not in the first. Still, many on the Left find the first compelling but the second argument not compelling. They can’t have it both ways. “Genetic arguments for me but not for thee!”

In fact, neither argument is any good, even if we suppose that premise 1 of the first argument is true. I wouldn’t use the second argument against current supporters of the minimum wage. Obviously, most current supporters of the minimum wage aren’t eugenicists who want to starve the poor and prevent them from reproducing; they just believe the early economists were mistaken about what minimum wage laws will do. Similarly, economists and philosophers who today support vouchers dispute whether vouchers increase racial segregation.

Academic Philosophy

Political Stability in the Open Society

John Thrasher and I have published an article in the American Journal of Political Science, “Political Stability in the Open Society,” that BHL readers may find of interest. If you’re interested in how to have a diverse and free but stable social order, take a look. I’m cross-posting the blog post linked here.

In “Political Stability in the Open Society,” we argue that John Rawls’s model of a well-ordered society—as an account of a realistic utopia—is defective for two reasons. First, the well-ordered society model wrongly excludes the deep disagreement and diversity that we find in contemporary political life from figuring into a model of liberal order. Second, when deep disagreement and diversity are integrated into the model, discovery becomes an important part of modeling a stable liberal order. A liberal society is one where people are free to experiment with different approaches to the good life and justice given that we know much less than we might about how to live together.

If we are committed to recognizing deep diversity and the need for social discovery in modeling a stable liberal order, we must modify the idea of a well-ordered society and the ideas most closely associated with it in a liberal theory of justice. In particular, a more dynamic notion of stability for the right reasons is required for a new model that we call an open society. An open society is a liberal society that allows for deep disagreement about the good and justice and which sustains institutions that can adapt to new discoveries about what justice requires.

Our goal is to explain the idea of stability appropriate for an open society. The challenge is that, given the importance of respecting diversity and openness to social change, stability for the right reasons now seems to have a cost; stable rules are hard to replace with better rules. On the other hand, some rules need to remain stable to support productive social change and experimentation.

Given these challenges, we distinguish two different kinds of stability that apply at different levels of social organization. The first kind of stability applies to constitutional rules that set out the general legal rules within which our lower-level institutional rules operate. These constitutional rules must remain in equilibrium despite challenges and threats in order to preserve the social conditions that foster experimentation. But we reject a similar form of stability for lower-level legal and institutional rules. Experimentation at that level can be productive in ways that constitutional experimentation is not. Instead, lower level legal and institutional rules need to be robust in the sense that, when challenged, old rules can be replaced by stable new rules without undermining the system of rules as a whole.

One important implication of our analysis is that, in the open society, a shared conception of justice is less important than a stable constitutional framework where many aspects of the open society, including justice, are open for debate. Rather than focusing on the particular principles of justice that are most reasonable for a well-ordered society, theorists should focus on the properties of different constitutional orders that encourage productive social evolution and experimentation. A second implication of our analysis is that open societies may turn out to be substantially different from one another. There will likely be no single type of social order that suits any given open society. This is all to the good because these diverse orders can learn from each other’s experiments.