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Oct 21, 2014

Libertarianism’s Untroubling Aristocracy of Self-Control

Pamela Stubbart theorizes that a no-holds-barred libertarian political order would benefit everyone, not only those born with exceptional self-control.

All prospective political orders, by their existence and maintenance, would create advantages for some people (as compared to the baseline of no state having been formed at all, or the baseline of some pre-existing state). Indeed, that is a main point of having a state at all: systematically conferring benefits (construed broadly) that are justly due to citizens. It is a mistake to think that any state is or could be “neutral,” in the sense of benefiting everyone literally equally. Rather, we use a normatively-loaded conception of “fairness” to evaluate whether any possible set of benefits and burdens to citizens is distributed equitably.

That being said, consider the claim that a libertarian system (i.e. one created by a government significantly smaller and/or less active in most citizens’s individual, properly private lives) would generate a “self-control aristocracy.” Although this objection has undoubtedly been raised many times, I find Joseph Heath’s statement of the “self-control aristocracy” objection to libertarianism particularly straightforward and succinct.

Because I am self-conscious about my membership in the self-control aristocracy, I am acutely aware of the fact that, when I think about questions of “individual liberty” in society, I come to it with a particular set of class interests. That is because I stand to benefit much more from an expansion of the space of individual liberty than the average person does—because I have greater self-control. So I recognize that, while a 24-hour beer store would be great for me, it would be a mixed blessing for others… What does this have to do with libertarianism? It is important because every academic proponent of libertarianism—understood loosely, as any doctrine that assigns individual liberty priority over other political values—is a member of the self-control aristocracy. As a result, they are advancing a political ideal that benefits themselves to a much greater extent than it benefits other people. In most cases, however, they do so naively, because they do not recognize themselves as members of an elite, socially-dominant group, that stands to benefit disproportionately. They think of liberty as something that creates an equal benefit for all. (Or, to the extent that it fails to benefit some people, it is entirely the fault of those people, for failing to exercise sufficient self-control.)

Indeed, humanized portrayals of the realities of willpower are sometimes clearly aimed at making us feel as though our own capacities to make good choices are deeply fragile (our membership in the “self-control aristocracy” only tenuous), and that poor people whose decision fatigue leads them astray are owed our sympathy. High time preference, learned helplessness, and the apparent rationality of objectively poor choices…there but for the grace go we.

Au contraire, understanding self-control as not just fragile but rather as learned and malleable is the proper response to the science. Practicing and developing more willpower won’t make every poor person rich, but it will make the importance of willpower and self-regulation into a largely self-fulfilling prophecy. One likely upshot of the incremental (“growth”) theory of intelligence is that people who see their failure of self-control as inevitable (fixed by genetics and circumstances) will be much less likely to do the things that will help them to choose better the next time. Heath may be correct that many individual libertarians have this blind spot with respect to their self-control privilege, but it is not an inherent philosophical difficulty of libertarianism.

This is not to deny that there are individual differences in capacity for willpower and self-control: almost certainly there are. But these differences are not revealed by simply observing how people behave in one situation or at one slice of time and inferring immutable personality traits from that. Indeed, Walter Mischel’s now-legendary “marshmallow test” may have done just as much to obscure understanding of self-control as it did to elucidate its nature. If you recall, the marshmallow test confronted small children with the difficult choice between two marshmallows later or one marshmallow now. Delaying gratification was found to be correlated with other positive outcomes even much later in life (e.g. higher SAT score, lower BMI).

At first blush, the marshmallow test’s implications seem as clear as day: we can see differences in the innate willpower of even preschool-aged children, and these children carry their willpower (or lack thereof) with them throughout the rest of their lives, for better or for worse. If this were the simple truth, we would rightly worry that a more laissez-faire regime than we have presently would do more to create than rectify misery and injustice for citizens (most of whom must, on this view, be rather unremarkable in the innate willpower department).

But that’s not the simple truth. Though a few kids may be natural self-control superstars, those who “passed” the marshmallow test by delaying gratification often showed overt signs of effort. Coping mechanisms like distracting oneself with another object or body part helped the gratification-delayers to take focus off the immediate pleasure of one marshmallow and to reach their self-defined goal of waiting for two. Although these self-control boosting tactics surely happened largely subconsciously in the small children, they may have been learned in the first place and are surely learnable.

For this reason, suggestions about how to improve willpower (“do your hardest work earliest in the day!” “don’t shop on an empty stomach!”) are not merely silly “lifehacks” appropriate only for elites. Notice that some self-control self-help tips already comprise the psychologically-accurate core often unfortunately hidden in exchanges about, for instance, why poor people don’t eat well. It may be true that no one (poor or wealthy) makes good food choices when they’re that tired and in a hurry. This reflects proper humility with respect to the limits of human willpower. But those urging others to “plan meals ahead of time” and “make a food budget” are correct, too. These are reasonable pre-commitment measures that really can enhance even a tired and hurried person’s ability to make good choices.

A libertarian world may be one in which citizens with self-control most fully reap the benefits of self-control, but it’s also a world where citizens are best-positioned to develop it. In other words, a libertarian world’s systematic (but organic) benefit to those with self-control is a feature of that world, not a bug. How people respond to policy by developing willpower (or not) is to some extent an empirical question, and we can study these matters empirically. But is it any wonder, for instance, that Americans stopped saving when they had become confident that big government would take care of them forever? A less generous, means-tested retirement benefit might seemingly slight a few people on the margin, but it also could help to recreate a society of savers. Either “libertarian paternalist” policies or unilateral individual practices (like opting in to a automatic monthly savings account contribution) can get us there. And this is the power of allowing conditions to reward virtuous behavior: you get more virtue.

Citizens improving their willpower is a positive-sum game, and government can encourage this game to flourish by largely leaving untouched the institutions and structures that inherently reward delaying gratification. This does constitute, in some sense, a systematic benefit of libertarianism bestowed (or allowed to fall) upon those who do achieve and maintain self-control throughout their lives. But a large degree of self-control is prosocial (good for self and others), widely available, and conducive to long-term societal stability. Sometimes the government helps citizens to develop their moral and intellectual powers by providing materially, as in the case of education. In the case of self-control, the goal may be better reached through declining to provide. If this creates a “self-control aristocracy”—merely a group of people whose natures and choices have caused them to develop and benefit from the exercise of willpower—then long live the self-control aristocracy. This is one aristocracy into which one needn’t be born.