It is often assumed that libertarianism depends on thinking that property rights are absolute, or on fetishizing individual liberty. But, Dan Moller argues that the foundations of libertarianism lie in widely shared, everyday moral beliefs, especially regarding restrictions on shifting our burdens onto others.
What does it mean to shift burdens? Where do rights come from? Why do some people find redistribution of wealth appealing? Why is utilitarianism self‐deception? How utopian should you be in your political philosophy?
00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Powell: Our guest today is Dan Moller. He’s an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland and author of the new book, Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
00:19 Dan Moller: Thanks, it’s good to be here.
00:21 Aaron Powell: Why New England?
00:23 Dan Moller: It’s funny. There are these figures in the New England literary tradition, especially Emerson and Thoreau, whom I’ve always enjoyed reading. And they don’t seem to play much of a role in the mainstream discussion of libertarianism, and I thought that there are these ideas that motivate libertarianism in a way that’s different from what you find in more traditional figures. In particular, you find this emphasis, of course, on self‐reliance, and the famous essay from Emerson. But also, if you read through Walden, which I’m a big fan of, you’ll find this emphasis on both self‐reliance and a corresponding notion that you should be reluctant to shift your misfortunes unto other people. The conditions under which you should be willing to shift your misfortunes, your burdens on others, demand that others take up the slack for you are few and far between. And that way of approaching libertarianism strikes me as interestingly different from more traditional figures.
01:21 Trevor Burrus: In that regard, how much can we learn? So yeah, those are like manners, they’re related to manners and social mores and things like this, but can we really derive political conclusions from manners and social mores?
01:38 Dan Moller: Well, we draw our inspiration. To be clear, I’m not attempting to attach detailed doctrines of contemporary libertarianism to Walden and Thoreau, that would be sort of anachronistic. And in fact, if you’re a libertarian… Libertarians face, so to speak, in two different directions. In one direction, they’re for limited government, but they’re also for government. They are not anarchists and when you read Thoreau, you start to worry after a little while that maybe there’s too much anarchy there for the libertarians’ taste. The point is to draw inspiration from this idea of an aversion to burden shifting and develop that moral framework, and maybe the thing to do is to just contrast it with these other figures. That’s perhaps the main thing I was trying to do in dubbing it New England’s Libertarianism.
02:23 Aaron Powell: Can we go a bit more into what you mean by burden shifting? Because there’s some instances where depending on what you mean, it seems fine. To some extent, just living in a society means we’re interacting with each other, we’re in relationships, we’re embedded in relationships with people where it’s at least expected that they take on some of our burdens. We also start off with dependant rational animals phrase, like we start off basically being a burden to others. What specifically does it mean to shift burdens? And what kind of burdens are the ones you’re concerned about?
03:04 Dan Moller: Yeah, so the way I think of this is in terms of the conditions under which you are assuming one another’s burdens. The idea isn’t some ridiculous idea of atoms floating in the void who have no dependencies or anything, which is often sort of ridiculous straw man portrait you get of libertarianism. It’s important to acknowledge the many kinds of personal relationships where you’d suspect that you would take up other burdens. I would be horrified of some libertarian, for instance, who are unwilling to pitch in for a colleague or a friend or much less a lover, a spouse, of course. But those are voluntary relationships or dependencies that are taken up in a voluntary way you decide to have a child with your partner or something like that. And those seem quite different from cases where you insist by ultimately force that others take up your burdens and those seem extremely important. I often emphasize the role of reason and persuasion in the book and that’s where I think that fits in. It’s fine to try and enter into voluntary relationships with other people. It’s fine to persuade them that they ought to go help others or take up their burdens. Shame, I think, is great. Persuading people they should feel ashamed for not taking up other people’s burdens. Those are all fair game. What doesn’t strike me as fair game is going up to the strangers on your block and demanding and using force against them in order to get them to take up your burdens. That’s the contrast.
04:38 Trevor Burrus: What about luck in this… I guess, using force is a big difference, so we can get into what that means. But you could say, “I’m out of my job, I’m down on my luck,” and the New England sensibility is you go and you ask people, “Hey, can you pitch in so I can help out,” but whether or not you can steal from them. Well, we have cases like Jean Valjean who we all feel is a… Even though he stole a loaf of bread, it was to save his dying sister, I think it was. Does it actually apply? And then the secondary question is, how much does it matter that the government here… Is it just a group of people or is it something more doing it at a [05:20] ____?
05:22 Dan Moller: Yeah. Well, as far as luck goes, I don’t think that bad luck can endow you with an afforded use force that otherwise you would not be endowed with. My view is it’s still ask nicely when you’re down on your luck. I don’t think the mere fact that it was an unlucky car crash or something that wiped you out, that put you in this position can alter the authority that you get to exert over other people. The point about the more extreme cases where you’re really in huge trouble, starvation is at stake or something. Jean Valjean… The way I think of this is that there are thresholds that need to be reached, before you are permitted to exercise that kind of force over other people. And I do think that you ultimately can. And this is part of what I find interesting in these New England thinkers, is that they’re less extreme than some more familiar figures in this respect. If you read philosophical figures like Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, and you kind of do your Talmudic examination, what you tend to find is that it looks a lot like they’re relying on a very strong view of individual rights, that are kind of in Super Bowl, and that would apply, even in the kind of your‐kid‐is‐starving type case.
06:51 Trevor Burrus: You can’t cut off someone… You can’t take two cents from them to save the world from an asteroid, right? [chuckle] That’s a very…
06:57 Dan Moller: Right. And you don’t find that sort of thing in…
07:00 Trevor Burrus: We’re two cents short from the asteroid killing nuclear weapon, and we have to steal it from Robert Nozick.
07:05 Dan Moller: Right. Those [07:07] ____ can seem appealing in a way, ’cause we think you’re kind of cloaking yourself in this like invincible shield. [chuckle] But the corresponding drawback is that the moral picture that underlies it seems extreme and less attractive. And so part of what I’m concerned to do in the book is to sketch what happens when you relax those assumptions, when you’re a little less extreme. Let’s say that I am allowed to steal from people under certain conditions. Well, what then? I don’t think that’s the end of the story. There’s more to say there.
07:36 Aaron Powell: So one possible objection, I can imagine, to the burden shifting, or at least the… It’s wrong in most cases to use force to shift your burdens, as the kind of burdens that you’re interested in, for most of this book, are welfare state. But we, when… As citizens, there’s a social contract of sorts, in which we have implicitly or explicitly agreed to have burden shifted onto us in certain ways, or to at least pay for the helping of the burdens of others. And so, if that agreement exists, then it’s not so much you using force to shift a burden onto me, so much as you using force to compel me to honor a promise that I made.
08:21 Dan Moller: Yeah. I’m not excited about this vision of the supposed social contract. [chuckle] In general, I don’t think it’s true. And to this extent, I’m sympathetic to people who tend toward anarchism. I don’t think that in general, it’s true that we can get together and say, “Here’s three of us together. Let’s raise our hand if we can take Trevor’s stuff.” That’s not how it works. And in the kinds of cases we’re thinking of here, what’s really happening is various democratic majorities are voting in favor of doing various stuff. But although, of course, I respect in some sense, the political authority of majorities, majorities famously are not [chuckle] bound to do the right thing. And so when majorities vote for stuff, and then announce, “Hey, we’ve all decided that we’re gonna take your stuff and put it to ends we’ve decided what are the good ends.” You can’t infer from that, that that’s morally permissible.
09:18 Trevor Burrus: Where I find one of the more fascinating concepts in your book is we have… You’re trying… “Relax a little bit these absolute rights, and talk about the thresholds.” And what are the actual situations here, when there’s necessity? As we talked of Jean Valjean. Then there’s, “Can I steal from you, to get a tutor for my kid?” Those should be looked at as different points, which I make this point. I make this point all the time. It seemed like Rothbard thought that all harm was equally… I think he thought that because he couldn’t draw a line. And you don’t seem very concerned with that, ’cause you’re saying, you shot a laser pointer at someone versus punching them in the arm, they’re both violations of your bodily autonomy, in some sense. And how would you draw the line? But you point out that, even if you let someone steal from you for a necessity purpose or one of these things, it’s inherent in it is not that it’s a good thing you did, but there’s a residual element that you now owe them something. It’s like, so what… Now that you have overridden the right… Is it… We called a right. There’s residual obligations in a case of emergency, [10:27] ____ like restitution that you get to go in and use them but you got to pay compensation, and again, pay sympathy, that you should at least not spike the ball, I guess, [chuckle] to some extent.
10:36 Trevor Burrus: Responsibility and forward looking, you can foresee that some action will put you if… A similar position in the future. There’s a very interesting observation, which sort of says, that it’s acknowledged to be wrong, even when it was necessary.
10:50 Dan Moller: Yeah. I find these nuances quite interesting. I didn’t start off as a political philosopher, I started off as a moral philosopher, and so, it drew me to someone like Nozick, with kind of an interesting moral foundations. And as you point out, if you acknowledge that people’s diffusible rights can be overridden, and that you don’t cloak yourself in this kind of invincible mantle of, “You can never touch me no matter what.” If you acknowledge that’s ridiculous, if you can shove people out of the way to save people from traffic, and so on…
11:20 Dan Moller: The thing I’m trying to work out there in the book is, well, what’s left over? And what’s striking to me is, because people like Nozick or Rothbard made these initial claims that we’re so strong, what would happen is people would just knock them down by pointing out how implausible they seemed as moral claims. And then they would just announce, “We’re done here.” And so I’ve always found it sort of depressing that people just… That there was this kind of dynamic, where people would just declare that the discussion was over. And as you allude to, I just think there’s much more to discuss. And, my gosh, I view this as all at a very early stage. People should work much harder to try and elucidate all this. And as you say, some of the things you’re trying to work out, what are some of these things? If I fall on hard times, and okay, I’m not allowed to just grab my neighbor’s stuff. If it’s an emergency case that breaches a certain threshold, there’s imminent danger to life and limb, so then perhaps, I am. What is owed to my neighbor?
12:18 Dan Moller: Yeah, I do think things like restitution, compensation are the sorts of things you should be talking about. And the thing you said about spiking the ball, I view that as… In some ways, it’s kind of softer and mushier, but also more important, I think. You don’t view these as entitlements. You view this as sort of a tragic necessity, that you are impinging upon those around you, and you should have this attitude of “Ah, this is a terrible thing, and I’m gonna try and make this good,” and so on, which is, of course, different from how you feel about an expanse of welfare [12:47] ____.
12:47 Aaron Powell: Where do rights come from?
12:49 Aaron Powell: I mean, so if… You’ve jettisoned the absolute of Nozick and Rothbard, but there’s gotta be something supporting them.
13:00 Dan Moller: In this book, one thing I try and do is sort of start at a reasonable place. Some people who… Some classic authors, they try and just start with nothing. And then first, they show…
13:13 Aaron Powell: In the beginning was the word…
13:14 Dan Moller: Exactly.
13:15 Aaron Powell: Can I get to libertarianism soon?
13:17 Dan Moller: That’s right. And by the way, here’s my three‐page refutation of utilitarianism, and on and on. And that’s not my approach, perhaps consistent with the overall modesty of the program. [chuckle I don’t think that’s really what you wanna do in a book. I try and start with common sense views of morality, views that would be taken as pedestrian if you just mentioned them in any other context. Forget about, “Oh my God, we are going our way towards scary libertarianism or something.” It’s just you and me, and we’re hanging out in the shop, and we’re just chatting about everyday stuff and the newspaper. Did you hear about this guy or something? I try and take views that more or less are like that, and use them as premises to try and get to the conclusion.
13:57 Dan Moller: Of course, there are then these much much deeper questions about the nature of morality, and so on. I don’t say much about them, and I’m not sure I have much deeper things to say about them, than you would find in [14:10] ____ elsewhere, but I don’t think of that as a special problem as triggered by thinking about libertarianism. It’s just a feature of trying to be more modest and not solve all the problems in one book.
14:20 Aaron Powell: And on restitution say as a way to deal with sometimes rights needing to be overridden to some degree, how far does that go? Is there a point where they become kind of Nozick‐y inside constraints or can I… If I can tell a sufficiently good story and provide a sufficient level of restitution, then the fuzziness can go all the way down.
14:43 Dan Moller: What do you mean by all the way down? Do you mean all the way down historically?
14:48 Aaron Powell: No, I mean in terms of the severity of the rights violation.
14:54 Dan Moller: Okay, yeah, so picture a kind of curve, and what you’re trying to chart, the severity of the thing that they’re doing, and then the conditions under which you could do that… You could undertake these violations. What does that look like? Maybe it’s asymptotic. So if I ask myself what would it take for me to be entitled to torture you, maybe it would be the downfall of the world or something like that. There’s an interesting question about exactly how you should sort of graph that, and I accept that it might be sort of near asymptotic for some of these kinds of harms. The important thing, obviously, is just to acknowledge, oh my God, there’s just this vast difference between pinching people and torturing them, and it’s just insane. It’s just crazy that a lot of political philosophy doesn’t reflect that.
15:45 Trevor Burrus: Yes, I will start with my crazy premise. Premise one, pinching and torturing are not the same thing.
15:50 Dan Moller: Yeah, exactly.
15:51 Trevor Burrus: Moving on.
15:51 Dan Moller: Exactly.
15:53 Trevor Burrus: I think today, a lot of people, especially today, a lot of people would invoke not so much the justice of stealing or they would not justify stealing except for to say you can steal unjustly acquired property. And so you have… The basic syllogism is, is we’re on to steal property that belongs to another to help yourself out, even if the state is the mechanism by which you do that. I think you have great lines in the book about layers of bureaucracy that insulate you from what’s actually going on. And then I did this, therefore, the welfare state takes property from justly… [16:33] ____ property, therefore the welfare state. And it could be one.
16:38 Trevor Burrus: But the second premise was the one I think would today, especially since that you didn’t build that era kind of came into being. And I think that Obama, and now, every Democratic candidate, that has some level of articulating [16:53] ____. Putting it into popular bumper sticker slogan. And so therefore… And none of these things actually apply.
17:00 Dan Moller: Right. I think this is interesting. The thing that we just explored earlier is something that’s intellectually important, and then a philosophy seminar, I might never even get out of there alive. People would just be obsessed with that. But I think you’re right to point out that when people who aren’t trying to block a philosophical thesis take this up and just explore their grounds for disagreement, it’s rare that they accept this New England‐y point and then say, “Ha ha”. But we are in this position where we are compelled to take people’s rightfully held stuff that they admittedly are entitled to, it’s just that we have to et cetera, et cetera. It’s much more likely that they insist that you never were entitled to the stuff that they wish to appropriate in the first place. If nothing else, that just sounds easier to explain to people. It’s more persuasive. You mobilize Democratic majorities by saying things like the system is rigged and evil people are plotting against you, and there’s some zero‐sum story about how they got their hands on the goodies and you didn’t get your fair share, and so and so forth.
18:07 Trevor Burrus: It was yours to begin with the whole time.
18:10 Dan Moller: You’re much more likely to get that sort of story. And I do have something to say about that in the book as well. Unsurprisingly, I tend to find their stories unconvincing. In most modern service economies, it’s unlikely that what’s happening is there is a zero‐sum game and one group of citizens screwed you over and rigged the system against you and so on, and so forth. Of course, that could happen, but I really find those stories plausible now.
18:42 Trevor Burrus: But would… It’d be interesting if you said, “Okay, we do find a situation where I will admit due to historical factual background, this whole group of people did unjustly require their wealth.” Not sure it actually still follows that the welfare state would come from that. At least, in the way we currently have it, it might be, we take all their money and make a bunch of parks out of it or something or invest it in museums or something like that.
19:09 Dan Moller: Right. The exact consequence would be sort of interesting to contemplate, but it might be like a one‐off transfer scheme or something like that. If you are an agrarian society and the aristocrats have sort of appropriated all the land and consigned a serf class to work them as their semi‐slaves or something, you might think land redistribution is a sort of reasonable approach or something like that. But yeah, it’s true that the welfare state doesn’t follow from that. If you think about it, the conditions under which a welfare state is likely to arise in which there’s a lot of wealth here in a sophisticated industrial economy, those are rarely the kinds where that sort of thing will have happened. You’re more likely to encounter those in sort of historical agrarian type situations, I think.
19:52 Aaron Powell: If it’s not okay to shift existing… Your burden’s in your possession, I don’t know if it makes sense to speak of them in your possession, but burdens that have affixed to you to someone else. Is it different and not okay also to create burdens on others? And I’m thinking of this in the context of justifying private property because one of the arguments against private property from people on the left, especially zero‐sum private property like land and natural resources and so on is that by me mixing my labor with them and cordoning them off, putting my fence around it, I am excluding others which is, in a sense, creating burdens on them.
20:40 Dan Moller: Yeah, there’s a couple of things to say about that. One is that there is, of course, this familiar question of whether in appropriating stuff, you are making others worse off or not, and there’s kind of a long tradition of sort of bickering over that, and under what conditions is that true or not. There’s this famous phrase associated with Locke, the Lockean proviso in which you’re supposed to… You’re not supposed to appropriate in a way that doesn’t leave others. And now we come to the key phrase that I often get wrong, and I’m feeling nervous, but it’s enough and as good, if I have [21:12] ____. I’m always tempted to say as much and as good, and then I’m angrily corrected by libertarians. So enough and as good. There’s this tradition of trying to work out the conditions under which you are allowed to appropriate, and maybe the important thing to flag is just don’t be naive about that. It might be much better for others that productive people appropriate, and then do something useful with it. But there’s also just as much a deeper question, I think, of whether this Lockean stuff is just wildly over‐discussed and over‐applied. The stuff about Locke and appropriation has to do with initial acquisition of goods and physical resources, and there’s, of course, the question of, well, how relevant is that today in the service economy, and so on.
21:56 Trevor Burrus: Well. Yes. But this question of bad initial acquisition, you can paint down the line. It kind of reminds me of… We can get to, obviously, slavery and reparations. But in the Oklahoma land rush, we had the Sooners, [22:11] ____ Sooner fan, and they were people who cheated. The idea was you all get on the line, and then [22:16] ____ just run out and grab your land. It’s amazing that that once actually happened, but… And they cheated over the line and created homesteads beforehand, and then you could be like, “Well, you didn’t follow the rules.” And then all the subsequent owners, successors in interest, they all are tainted by your initial theft. Should we just sort of not care about that? I’d be like, “Too late.” [chuckle]
22:44 Dan Moller: Well, it depends on where you are. If it’s, say, call that Gen One. And now we get to Gen Two, that looks different from Gen 1,000. And if you reach a point where what people have in their bank accounts, it’s just… There’s almost no connection to the land that they occupy. And if you ask them to leave, they will just say, “Sure. I’ll leave. It won’t make any difference to me at all. I’m happy to just give away my one‐half acre in LA or something, and just go somewhere else.” At that point, it makes much less sense, of course, if you think that the reason most people end up with what they do and, of course, isn’t true of everyone. But if you think that it’s broadly true in a society like ours or Japan or other advanced economies, the reason they’re wealthy has to do with services that they provide, and having an advanced economy. It’ll seem less plausible to think we should worry deeply about patches of land, and what was done on the hundreds or thousands of years ago, however regrettable.
23:45 Trevor Burrus: You mentioned… We talked about luck a little bit in terms of accidents or bad instances of luck. What about the Rawlsian view of luck, which is kind of the luck of your initial faculties, and skills, and skill set which are acquired through no fault of your own. And therefore, the products of those, as opposed to someone… You’re born with legs, someone is born without legs. It’s neither person’s fault that you have legs or don’t have legs. Does that create a situation for a possible just acquisition of property from these people?
24:23 Dan Moller: Yeah. So there are these inequalities and endowments apart from the resources they can get their hands on, which we were talking about a moment earlier. And the question you have to ask yourself there is, my misfortune in not being gifted in certain ways relative to my circumstances, does that endow me with moral authority to commandeer your stuff? And I find that sort of hard to take terribly seriously. One important thing to consider here is just the wide range of endowments that count. People tend to think of this very narrowly, but it’s actually… It’s much broader than most people appreciate. If you have some weird capacity to attract people’s attention on YouTube, or you’re a really great dancer, or you have great gastronomic ability, these are all things that can make you fabulously rich.
25:12 Trevor Burrus: Who’s that… Isn’t the number one YouTube earner some kid who opens up toys?
25:17 Aaron Powell: Yeah.
25:17 Trevor Burrus: Sounds like six years old. And his parents, they created him, but they didn’t give him… I guess, they’re responsible for his genetic code, but they’re making a ton of money from this kid who just opens up toys.
25:29 Dan Moller: Yes.
25:29 Trevor Burrus: There is endowment that Rawls did not think about?
25:32 Dan Moller: Yes, or by extension, manipulating your children into doing productive stuff on the Internet. But my point there is that people tend to think of it as… There’s this one thing. I don’t know. Maybe they’re vaguely thinking of intelligence or something in the background, and then they think it’s this great shame that you weren’t given the full quotient or something like that. That’s [25:50] ____ to look at, there’s just this vast panoply of skills. In the academy, it’s sort of, especially salient. Even though being smart really helps in the academy, but there’s just this vast weird array of talents that can enable you to be successful. And so what you really have to end up saying is that just the random vicissitudes of your strange endowments and ability to dance or flop around on YouTube or something, matched with these weird circumstances that you may find yourself in, that that endows you with the right to put your hands on other people’s stuff. And I don’t see the case for that.
26:31 Aaron Powell: It occurs to me as we’re having this conversation, that it brings up one of the errors that I think people make about libertarianism. And you touched on this at the beginning. What we’re talking about right here is when is it okay to use force to take from people who you… To shift your burdens directly? When is it okay to use state force to do this? But the conversation could end up sounding like… If I were an unsympathetic person listening to this conversation and I had forgotten about the qualifier you made at the beginning the podcast, the conversation could sound like you saying like, “Look, we shouldn’t care about this,” like, “Luck, yes, it matters in your life, but I shouldn’t care about it, because I’m saying that you don’t have a right to make any claims on me.” And that that’s a mistake about the way that… That’s the mistake about the argument that you’re making, but it’s also something that a lot of libertarians, I think, in our rhetoric sometimes talk like that’s in fact the case. That if X is not a rights violation, then X is 100% permissible and not morally blameworthy, when in fact, that’s not the case at all. And so that, I guess, keeping that line in mind.
27:57 Dan Moller: Yeah, I would say two things about that. It is true that you have all these obligations to people that might not result in them having the authority or to kind of force you to do anything, but that doesn’t mean that watching people go hungry is great. And of course, many of these arguments will be played out across a view of how likely it is that a society of individuals cooperating are likely to do well or poorly in aggregate. And of course, if libertarians tend to think that that works out relatively well, and they I think the reasons why it works out well, have more to do with these features of the market and individuals exhibiting their talents and so on than anything else. On the point, though, of whether the mere fact that you’ve fallen on hard times and you’ve had bad luck, whether that should command your moral attention, even there, I think it’s worth pausing, because I think you should distinguish cases from… Or cases in which bad luck has left you destitute and hungry in which the absolute quality of your life is terrible, from one in which bad luck has made you less capable of doing as well as other people. And in places like where we are, as opposed to other parts of the world, I think you do see a shift more toward the latter. It’s not that the Bernie Sanders of the world are emphasizing the horror of children going hungry, and there are children…
29:25 Trevor Burrus: Oh, but did he say something ridiculous last debate like the highest poverty… Child poverty rate in the world or something. He always just trying to play that up but that’s just one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard quoted, but he is trying to play that up.
29:36 Dan Moller: Right. Well, and to be sure, there are people who go hungry in the United States, and it’s no joke and everyone should take that seriously, libertarians more than anyone.
29:44 Trevor Burrus: But he’s also trying to get teachers a raise just like normal people a raise.
29:46 Aaron Powell: Yes, but I think when people are focused on inequality, pure inequality, that’s quite different. And I’m not actually sure that you should go along with the sense of moral outrage of pure inequality is the result of bad luck. I have family members who do entrepreneurial stuff and they get more money than public teachers do. Should anyone in the world shed a tear for me? Oh my God, no. I am doing fine, I’m gonna eat a tasty lasagna tonight, everything’s fine. No one should have any sympathy for me whatsoever. And yet absurdly, if you really focused on pure inequality and you thought about inequality, particularly as an outcome of bad luck in terms of your skills, preferences, and so on, you would absurdly think that that gap was was morally deeply significant. But speaking in the first person, it just isn’t. There are people who are in absolute terms hungry, they deserve our sympathy. But those who are in the bottom end of an inequality may not be.
30:49 Trevor Burrus: A lot of what we were discussing kind of reminds me to some extent of my former professor, Michael Huemer, who was actually… I did a philosophy degree at Boulder as did Aaron. Although Aaron did not have Professor Huemer, but he… This idea of using the moral intuitions, and if this isn’t wrong in this situation, or if this isn’t wrong, why is this okay here? We don’t live in a libertarian world, we actually live in a world where pretty much everywhere, there are states that do this stuff and most people think it’s okay. And we’re around here being like, “Why are you so weird to believe in the states?” And the actual… Looking at the numbers, really, we’re the weirdos. Why doesn’t the world intuition of everyone who believes in the state and lets it happen, and says, “No, this is totally fine,” why isn’t that the thing we should be paying attention to and not thinking, “Well, maybe we’re the weirdos here?”
31:49 Dan Moller: Yeah, it’s interesting. Arguments move forwards and backwards. You start with your premises and go to your conclusion, but then some people look at the conclusion and say, “No way,” and then they roll backwards and say, “I guess I made a wrong assumption somewhere.” One way to think about this is I’m trying to persuade people, “Look, let’s start with some moral premises,” and I talk about our sort of everyday moral beliefs and then out pops some version of libertarianism at the other end. And it’s a completely reasonable and logical question to ask, “Well, wait, why can’t I just do it the other way around, and say, ‘When I look at society, it seems to be working kind of good, and to the extent we need improvements in the direction of [32:27] ____ data, intervention, or something, and thus, you’ve gone wrong somewhere.’ ” And I actually don’t have a problem with that, if we’re honest about it, and we acknowledge that that’s what’s happening. If what happens is you think after our whatever 100 year experience of the welfare state in the mass society, clearly that is just this bedrock that no one could ever reject. And on the basis of that, you go on to acknowledge an inconsistency with our everyday moral beliefs about how you treat your friends and neighbors, and you say, “I guess that stuff’s wrong and we should be utilitarians and do all the crazy stuff utilitarians, [chuckle] not just towards… ”
33:03 Trevor Burrus: So you’re saying, so then go and steal from your neighbors.
33:07 Dan Moller: Yes. So look, if they infer from this, clearly, we should be utilitarians. And if my neighbor could derive greater value from my television than I could, then he’s morally entitled to it. All the more power to them in a way, or to be more serious, I think that would be clarifying. But that’s not what happens. It’s not that people do that. What they try and do is have it both ways, and that’s the part that I’m resisting, the part where you both hold on to the thing about comfortable views about the status quo in the [33:35] ____ state and so on, and you deny that there’s any conflict there, with kind of garden variety moral beliefs.
33:40 Aaron Powell: But to ask an alternate version of Trevor’s question, why isn’t belief that redistribution is okay when it’s the result of a democratic process and enforced by an elected state, one of our moral premises? That seems to be just something… People think so… Well, frequently you need to hold the state to the same standards, it’s just people, why do they get to [34:05] ____. But lots of people, it just seems have a moral intuition that it just is different when it’s the state. Why do you get to exclude that moral premise from your baseline set of common sense ones?
34:18 Dan Moller: Well, again, I don’t. I view the thing that you just said as another way of saying, “Look at the status quo, isn’t it pretty good, how could that be wrong?” And, what I try and do in the book is show that that does just produce this conflict with ordinary moral beliefs that you have. Pinpointing where that goes off the rails, that’s something where you have to have a discussion with someone and see where exactly that’s happening. But that is my view. If you ask yourself, why is it that people find the status quo that is everywhere all around them accepted as the reasonable status quo? Why do they find that sort of… Find that question sort of answers itself.
35:01 Trevor Burrus: By definition it’s…
35:03 Dan Moller: If you’re… You grow up on your mother’s knee and are just told, “This is how it works.” You can be taught to think almost any social system is fine, of course. And if you step back one step back, in abstraction, if you ask yourself why is it that, once there’s any wealth at all around to redistribute, why is it that Democratic majorities find themselves attracted to various moralized arguments for engaging those redistributions? That doesn’t seem shocking, either, once you post the question that way. Why would people find that attractive or exciting? It seems almost inevitable to me.
35:39 Trevor Burrus: It’s slavery [35:39] ____ obviously, comes to mind, and a lot of people thought that was okay.
35:43 Aaron Powell: Yeah. At the risk of a slight tangent, ’cause you made dismissive remarks towards utilitarianism a bit earlier. And I… Just from my experience talking with young libertarians, especially the ones who come from economics departments like utilitarianism is [36:00] ____ Obviously, why is this true?” Obviously, this is the case, and anyone who would posit anything different is just…
36:07 Trevor Burrus: Our colleague Jeff Myron is a very big believer of this.
36:08 Aaron Powell: Not a fan of efficiency, you have… There’s two appendix in this book that I enjoyed immensely. And so, I just wanna ask about the first one, which is why is utilitarianism self‐deception?
36:25 Dan Moller: Well, I think there’s a serious question to be asked here. First, distinguish utilitarianisms that are self‐effacing, where you’re just trying to make a fancy philosophical point about, “Here’s where I think morality comes from.” And you’re not urging us to do anything crazy, you’re just saying, “The reason why we have norms against stealing are because… ” And then you tell us some story. You get that kind of story from figures like Hume or Sedgwick or something like that. But then there’s the revisionist version where you’re saying, “We just follow utilitarian logic wherever it leads, and if that means we do crazy things and kill people or something, then that’s what we do.”
37:00 Dan Moller: And, although now I’ve put this so pejoratively, I feel bad but casting it as following the utilitarian logic where it leads, you might associate that with someone like Peter Singer, for instance, who famously does have controversial views that have gotten him in hot water. If you then focus on the revisionist kind, which is the kind we care about here, then there’s the question of why do so few utilitarians exhibit much utilitarianism? And that question, I think, utilitarians don’t face up to enough. To the extent, they do, they face up to the easy part, which is, “Why don’t they give more to charity or something? Why don’t they do even more nice stuff to people?” And there, I think we should cut them some slack because we’re flawed creatures and none of us live up to our ideals fully. But, it’s the other part of utilitarianism where it really is striking, where they don’t do the nasty stuff that utilitarianism, at least, appears to call for. It appears that utilitarianism would favour stealing your grandma’s money to give it to more worthy orphans or stuff like that.
38:07 Dan Moller: There’s a long tradition of going through these cases. And they can claim that in each instance, well, it just works out that the utilitarian calculus tells you not to, because of some complicated network of effects or something. The first time you hear that, you kind of nod your head and say, “Okay.” But then, [chuckle] when you’ve heard it the 500th time and it turns out that this gets them off the hook of ever exhibiting any unpopular nasty utilitarianism, then you start to worry that, “Hmm, maybe it’s a kind of self‐deception,” in the same sense that my students sometimes announce that they’ve become Buddhists over the summer or something. And then it quickly emerges that this… [chuckle] what really happened is they find it hard to reject a certain form of reasoning. When they consider an ideal, it has a kind of attraction. They feel the desire to affirm it. But whether they actually accept it as a belief, whether they take it as a premise for their reasoning and as a basis for action, that’s another matter, and I at least, find it very suggestive that you see so little utilitarianism among utilitarians.
39:18 Trevor Burrus: So, in the face of a non‐libertarian world filled with non‐libertarians, they’re just everywhere. You see ‘em all over the place, it’s crazy. Obviously, this is an exceptionally good libertarian philosophy book, I highly recommended it. But are you throwing a bomb into a world that is not prepared? All these welfare state that can’t be taken away, we got all these things… Overnight, at least. Is this constructive? Are you being constructive, Dan?
39:56 Dan Moller: Well, let me… [laughter] This takes me back to the ninth grade.
40:00 Aaron Powell: Yeah. Exactly.
40:00 Dan Moller: The question is definitely, “No.” Yeah, let me say a few things about that. So the last chapter is about how utopian you should be in your political philosophy. You can think of this as a sort of contrast, you can either be utopian and dream big, or you can be a kind of gritty realist and you don’t stray much from the current realities ’cause, “Bah, we’re never gonna get there anyway,” and you’re just, “It’s pie in the sky.” My feeling there is you should be utopian about some things. You should be utopian about trying to change people’s minds. You should be utopian… Maybe this is the ivory tower in me, you should be utopian about reason and persuasion and trying to persuade your fellow citizens. You have a duty to try and persuade them and convince them. You shouldn’t be utopian about people, about how quickly you can change things. You shouldn’t be utopian about whether smashing things overnight is a good idea.
41:00 Trevor Burrus: So would you press the button?
41:00 Dan Moller: Right. So this brings to mind, I think it’s the Murray Rothbard question about would you press the button, which is always a good question for anyone’s views about anything.
41:09 Trevor Burrus: Communists [41:09] ____.
41:11 Dan Moller: Yeah, and also just a good cocktail question. I recommend it. The question is, do you press a big red button that would implement libertarian or communism, whatever philosophy, tomorrow. And as I argue in the last chapter, the answer is, “No.” I don’t think you should. I’m not a radical libertarian in that sense, and I part company with people like Murray Rothbard. And this again comes back to this question of, do you think of yourself as having these absolute rights that can never be violated and thus, we can’t tolerate a single hour of seeing them? “Oh my god, if the welfare state wants my taxes, is that an intolerable injustice I just can’t [41:52] ____?” And I don’t view it that way. And so I think of this as more a long‐term project.
41:56 Dan Moller: Look, it’s only very recently, in the grand scheme of things, that there was enough wealth, and that there was a political apparatus for people to argue about how it should be distributed and to make arguments and convince people about norms, about how to deal with that. I see it as sort of early in the game when it comes to that, in the grand scheme of things. And so we should try and persuade people of our views. And of course, there are other… There are at least small [42:25] ____ cases where libertarian views are taken seriously or the fights are winnable. And so you should maybe distinguish these kind of grand questions from the smaller questions. Just to take a tiny example from the daily newspapers, there are these debates about should we get rid of gifted programs in schools because they’re exclusionary. It’s textbook fodder for libertarians to make the case to their neighbors about. And those are things people are open to hearing and listening to, and so, pick your battles.
43:00 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit @r/FreeThoughtsPodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or whereever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tese Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.