Libertarian ethics is best grounded in a commitment to radical equality, not in trying to optimize preference satisfaction. Some preferences are bad.

Adam Gurri is the founder and Editor‐​In‐​Chief at Liberal Currents.

The argument for liberty has not traditionally come from philosophers and social scientists offering up preference‐​maximization frameworks. Instead, it has begun with a faith in a radical equality. Contrary to the cynicism often leveled at the line of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” this equality is not about some specific measurable property. It is a moral equality, an equality in dignity. It is a faith that we all owe each other an equality of mutual respect. This faith is part of our Christian heritage and could be found as long ago as the abolition of ancient slavery after the fall of Rome. It goes back even further than this, of course, especially to the ancient Stoic school, whose influence on early Christianity and in particular the original church fathers cannot be overstated.

One need not be a Christian, or even religious, to share this faith (as the Stoics and modern Kantians have demonstrated, among many others). Utilitarianism since Bentham has had a strong element of this as well, in its rigid insistence that the well being of every individual must be weighed equally, regardless of social status or race or beliefs. As with Bentham, so too with Pareto. But here we must move from the overlaps among these traditions to the irreducible conflicts.

For the Stoic, Christian, and Kantian understanding of equality in dignity and respect also include a substantive account of right and wrong. From these traditions, and related ones, we find the resources for a defense of liberty which is inclusive of morality. Preference‐​maximization frameworks like Pareto’s, on the other hand, self‐​consciously attempt to exclude morality. In practice, what they actually do is create an alternate morality of preferences.

For this reason the Tyler Cowen work that Eric Crampton cites is inappropriate here—Cowen looks at a few possible alternative measures of welfare, but explicitly restricts himself to models of “preference sovereignty”. This is fine when the goal is to explore alternative possibilities within this assumption, but not very helpful in a discussion which centers on the moral status of the “preference sovereignty” assumption itself!

Crampton reduces the notion that racism is evil to “a set of preferences” that are shared by those “of us coming from particular philosophical perspectives”. He then turns to an approach common to those operating within the narrative of property; he does not argue that racism is wrong as such and people are morally obligated not to act on behalf of it. Instead, he draws on evidence and arguments showing that in the market, discrimination is often unprofitable and for that reason Jim Crow regimes relied heavily on direct legal mandates to enforce racial segregation. One can certainly find many cases where this is true, but I have my doubts that the local shopkeepers and diner owners who called the police on African‐​American patrons were all doing so primarily out of a sense of duty to obey the law. Moreover, we have other cases, such as country clubs that explicitly excluded Jewish members and other ethnicities, where private prejudice is clearly what is at work.

I’m not here seeking to justify anti‐​discrimination laws, but to flesh out the moral basis of liberty. Reducing these issues to mere preferences is the worst kind of relativism. Moreover, mounting the argument that preference‐​maximization also minimizes illiberal outcomes requires some sort of meta‐​preference justifying the whole framework. This is equivalent to arguing that maximizing preferences is the way to go because it will result in aggregate outcomes that I prefer. Or, when treated as a mere tool of pragmatic coalition building, it results in aggregate outcomes that you prefer, even if I have different reasons for supporting it.

The pragmatic argument is quite popular in policy debates; Joseph Heath for instance believes that arguing for Pareto‐​type efficiency as a policy criteria is “inherently less controversial”. This is puzzling, given the almost allergic reaction that economic‐​type arguments nearly always receive in private and public discussion with non‐​economists. In general, the pragmatic case for Pareto criteria seems to ignore the fact that people nearly always have a reaction to it stemming from some substantive morality, and that fairly broad moral agreement is the norm, rather than some historical rarity. The disagreements that we focus on often cloud this fact, but those disagreements are nearly always framed by an enormous background of shared moral assumptions. The question of how to resolve the disagreements we do have is not trivial, but it’s not at all clear that efficiency and similar Pareto‐​inspired arguments are the most pragmatic option we have available, and their moral status is highly questionable.

Arguments for moral equality remain a powerful force in American cultural life. They have and have always had rivals with which they have clashed, and it is that conflict that defenders of liberty ought to focus on. The Paretean framework was a valiant attempt to show that liberty created ideal consequences for everyone on their own terms, but it comes at a high price—the price of treating racism as though it were just another preference like choosing Coca‐​Cola over Pepsi. Moreover, it is not a cost that we need to pay. Measurements of material well‐​being do not require Paretean assumptions. The best measurements, in fact, do not rely on them—talking about how many hours the typical American worker must put in on the job before being able to afford specific bundles of goods, for instance, or life expectancy, or other qualitative consumption measurements. Such measurements are imperfect and involve various methodological compromises—but it’s not as though Paretean frameworks get around that basic problem of empirical work.

Moreover, scholars such as Deirdre McCloskey have actively worked to show the deep connection between liberty, dignity, and mutual respect—in a manner consistent with morality—and what she calls The Great Enrichment: the explosion of wealth from the onset of the Industrial Revolution to the present.

Defenders of liberty need not shrink away from morality. For often it is mutual respect that resolves problems such as externalities which plague Paretean defenses of liberty, and in a more effective and encompassing manner than Coasian bargains could be expected to. It is my hope that libertarians will find it in themselves to embrace the bourgeois virtues and see the Pareto framework for what it is—a useful tool, but no substitute for a liberty constituted of dignity, mutual respect, and morality.