Monday, August 26, 2019

Vance (and Horwitz) on libertarians (and "conservatives")

Vance is the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a really nice (and important?) book on social and economic troubles in Appalachia. Most interesting to me: the problems for the dysfunctional rural poor are ironically mirrored by the social and economic troubles in our inner cities. And both have connections to the importance of individual responsibility, culture, and public policies which subsidize (and encourage) troubles with family structure and stability. (Here's my review of Vance's book.) 

Last month, Vance spoke at the National Conservatism Conference in DC and opened with a discussion of libertarianism and its connections to "conservatism". I didn't hear the talk, but read an abridged version in First Things which focuses almost solely on this aspect of the talk. (As an aside, it's interesting that FT would choose to reprint that part, but that's a tangent for another day, perhaps.) 

Vance is a fan of libertarianism, broadly. (Hayek was a key figure in his intellectual development.) But he identifies this concern about/within libertarianism: "the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn't be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce". But this concern is poorly defined and directed for at least three reasons. 

First, this is far from a universal attribute among Libertarians and it's certainly not required by Libertarian philosophy-- political or otherwise. Libertarians often worry about decisions made by individuals as well as various social outcomes. Here, Vance falls for a common error across the political spectrum: if I'm not willing to condemn/subsidize various decisions AND use the force of government to help people with those decisions, then I'm seen as condoning the decisions or being "unworried" about the outcomes. 

In contrast, all of us can quickly imagine contexts where we agree/disagree with decisions and are worried (e.g., should people welcome new neighbors with baked goods; should people eat more than one dessert per meal), but will not look to bring in the government as a potential remedy.

Second, Vance's concerns can be found among conservatives (of various stripes), liberals (of various stripes), and the far-more-prevalent political types in our country ("moderates" who don't think much about politics; "independents" who hold a dog's breakfast compilation of views; and avid partisans of the two major political parties). In fact, Vance is mostly describing selfishness--which knows no political boundaries. With an individual-oriented political philosophy, are Libertarians more prone to this flaw? Perhaps, but not enough to receive special approbation. 

Third, Vance fails to mention/consider a key approach within Libertarian thought. One can get to Libertarian policy positions and political philosophy through many combinations of a.) optimism about the decisions of individuals or placing a high value on individuals; and b.) through pessimism government, ethically and practically, in theory and especially in practice. 

Vance imagines/assumes a solely positive defense of Libertarian philosophy-- a far more challenging task. Given theory, data, history, etc., the negative approach is quite fruitful and difficult to refute. 

Steve Horwitz has a strong response to Vance, mostly on points 1 and 3. 

In the opening of the essay, it's worth noting that Vance describes Hillbilly Elegy as "a story about family decline, childhood trauma, opioid abuse, community decline, the decline of the manufacturing sector, and the loss of dignity and purpose and meaning that come along with it." And he describes his sense of the American Dream from that background and perspective: "a decent enough job to support my family and that I could be a good husband and a good father."


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