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Come into My Parler

photograph of relection on Chicago Bean of skyline

Efforts to curtail and limit the effect of disinformation reached a fever-pitch in the run up to the 2020 election for President of the United States. Prominent social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, after long resistance to exerting significant top-down control of user posted content, began actively combating misinformation. Depending on who you ask, this change of course either amounts to seeing reason or abandoning it. In the latter camp are those ditching Facebook and Twitter for relative newcomer, Parler.

Parler bills itself as a free speech platform, exerting top-down control only in response to criminal activity and spam. This nightwatchman approach to moderation makes clear the political orientation of Parler’s founders and those people who have dumped mainstream platforms and moved over to Parler. Libertarian political philosophy concerning the proper role of state power was famously described by American philosopher Robert Nozick as relegating the state to the role of nightwatchman: leaving citizens to do as they please and only intervening to sanction those who break the minimal rules that underpin fair and open dealing.

Those making the switch characterize Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, as becoming increasingly tyrannical. Any attempt to curate and fact-check introduces bias, claims Parler co-founder John Matze. Whereas Parler aims to be a “neutral platform,” according to Parler co-founder Rebekah Mercer. This kind of political and ideological neutrality is a hallmark aspiration of libertarianism and classical liberalism.

However, Parler’s pretension became hypocrisy, as it banned leftist parody accounts and pornography. However, this is neither surprising nor on its own bad. As some have pointed out, every social media site faces the same set of issues with content and largely responds to it the same way. However, Parler’s aspiration of libertarian neutrality when it comes to speech content makes their terms of service, which allow them to remove user content “at any time and for any reason or no reason,” and their policy of kicking users off the platform “even where the [terms of service] have been followed” particularly obnoxious.

But suppose that Parler stuck to its professed principles. What would it mean to be politically or ideologically neutral, and why would fact-checking compromise it? A simple way of thinking about the matter is embodied by Parler’s espoused position toward speech content: no speech will be treated differently by those in power simply on the basis of its message, regardless of whether that message is Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist. Stepping from the merely political to the ideological, to remain neutral would be to think that no speech content was false simply on its face. Here is where the “problem” of fact-checking arises.

We live, so we keep being told, in a “post-truth” society. Whatever this exactly means, its practical import is that distinct groups of society disagree fundamentally both over their goals and how to achieve them, politically. The idea of fact-checking as a neutral arbiter between disagreeing parties breaks down in these situations because supposed facts will appear neutral only to parties who agree about how to see the world at a basic level. That is, the appearance of a fact-value distinction will evaporate. (The distinction between facts (i.e., how the world allegedly is without regard to any agents’ perceptions) and values (i.e., how the world ought to be according to a given agent’s goals/preferences) is argued by many to be untenable.)

In this atmosphere, fact-checking takes on the hue of a litmus test, examining statements for their ideological bona fides. When a person’s claim is fact-checked, and found wanting, it will appear to them not that an uninterested judge cast a stoic gaze out onto the world to see whether it is as the person says; instead, the person will feel that the judge looked into their own heart and rejected the claim as undesirable. When people feel this way, they will not stick around and continue to engage. Instead, they’ll pack up and go where they think their claims will get “fair” treatment. None of this is to say that fact-checking is necessarily a futile or oppressive exercise. However, it is a reason to not treat it as a panacea for all disagreement.

What Does John Stuart Mill Have to Say about the Hijab?

The European Union’s highest court has recently ruled that companies are allowed to ban hijabs in their workplaces. It is a response to two cases: Samora Achbita, a woman working for a company in Belgium, was fired over her refusal to take off her veil at work; Asma Bougnani was likewise fired by a company in France, for the same reasons.

This is yet another battle in the long hijab wars that have been fought in Europe over the last 20 years. As usual, there is a political aligning on this issue: the far right welcomes such bans, the multicultural left vehemently opposes them, and the rest of the parties are either undecided, or simply confused, about their stand.

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Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws

This post originally appeared on October 20, 2015.

In March 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th state to adopt “right-to-work” laws. Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Montana, and West Virginia are all considering such laws. Right-to-work laws do not prohibit unions. They prohibit agreements between unions and employers that require workers to be members of unions or to pay agency fees for the benefits they receive from union representation.

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Same-Sex Marriage: A Libertarian Perspective

The dust is just now beginning to settle on same-sex marriage in the United States, since the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges established the unconstitutionality of state-level bans on such marriages. Though the law of the land has been established, all the legal and sociocultural effects remain to be seen (for example, can elected officials receive a religious exemption from performing certain job-related duties).
Is same-sex marriage a victory for freedom? It’s hard to say, and depends on who you ask. The ability to marry a partner of the same sex at the same time both expands the life possibilities for many citizens, while also bringing them into the fold of semi-coercive social norms regarding what a proper long-term romantic relationship and family look like. The Supreme Court let “love win,” but that love is now an increasingly institutionalized one.
To those who we could call “rule of law” libertarians, the most important consideration is fairness and impartiality under the law. This perspective comes down in favor of same-sex marriage for obvious reasons having to do with fairness and equal protection. End-the-state libertarians, on the other hand, strongly disapprove of government in marriage to begin with (on the grounds that it invites and normalizes the meddling of government in private affairs), and object to its expansion (even to same-sex couples) as more of a bad thing. Some in the LGBTQ community (who may or may not be libertarians or anarchists) share this concern, believing that marriage is a kind of well-meaning but ultimately pernicious encouragement towards the conventional domesticated lives they don’t actually want.
No principled libertarian objects to gay marriage for specifically moral reasons, having to do with “marriage” being reserved for the permanent bond between a man and a woman, for instance. Whether it is un-libertarian to have reservations about progressive views regarding the malleability of sexuality and family is a trickier question (certainly progressive, libertine, and conservative libertarians have basically always co-existed in libertarianism’s big tent).
Libertarians do reasonably worry that same-sex marriage will lead to the abridgment of other liberties, namely freedom of religion and freedoms of association, especially through commerce (see, for example, the fight over whether religious bakers must bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple). However it is certainly nothing new in principle that some values in a plural society would necessarily become pitted against others. And it does not seem to be the goal of same-sex marriage proponents to use that position strategically for the purpose of dismantling other liberties, though the possibility is real and conspiracy theories abound.
Could there be other libertarianism-consistent reasons to oppose same-sex marriage? Not really. Allowing only straight marriage in order to “strengthen the nuclear family” runs afoul of the libertarian goal of making minimalist policy that is as value-neutral as possible. Even if same-sex marriage and parenting somehow did in fact weaken family life overall (it’s complicated, and family stability may matter more than gender), that would be a less important consideration for even most socially conservative libertarians than establishing state neutrality in marriage. In any case, there are relatively hands-off ways for the government to fight childhood poverty and provide opportunity to families, like properly-structured earned income tax credits and basic food support, that do not necessarily require discriminating on the basis of the biological or adoptive parents’ sexuality.
Similarly, slippery slope arguments against same-sex marriage don’t seem to be consistent with libertarianism. The threat of a slippery slope from same-sex marriage to multiple partner marriage (polygamy) is real. However, that move only seems like a pernicious slippery slope if one assumes that legally-sanctioned marriages must be between one man and one woman in the first place. Rule-of-law libertarians would likely reject that assumption.
In the end, it is not really up for debate – from a libertarian perspective – whether people of the same gender should be allowed to marry conditional on the fact that government is in the marriage business in the first place. Since marriage, in the civil-legal light, is about distributing the benefits and burdens of a particular form of citizenship, that form of citizenship should be in some strong sense available to all.
It’s a separate issue as to whether the government should require private businesses that cater to heterosexual weddings also to cater to same-sex weddings. The primary values at stake here are economic freedom versus non-discrimination, but the situation is much more narrow than the marriage question in general (which necessarily has broad and far-reaching consequences over many citizens’ whole lives). Whether a libertarian, or anyone, should trade some economic freedom in the attempted pursuit of non-discrimination is, however, a topic for another time.

Solving California’s Water Crisis: A Libertarian Perspective

If you move to California these days, as I did a few months ago, the jokes about bringing your own water along will be abundant. Of course, access to clean water is no laughing matter – water is one of the only specific things, along with oxygen, that literally every human requires for life.  Like most public policy issues, the California water situation is much more complex than you might have first heard; it’s hard even to figure out who exactly is at fault.

No, we’re not experiencing a drought just because people have munched too many water-loving almonds, or even because of climate change – California has often experienced drought cycles historically. Water rights in the west are divided up in some legacy finders-keepers manner, based on the order in which settlers of different areas claimed them. More recent attempts to clarify who got which water failed due to inaccurate measurements of a cyclical supply, and because they didn’t take ordinary natural fluctuations in supply into account. Most importantly, California is a net importer of water, a situation which only heightens as it grows more food and houses more people.

Unfortunately, water management has ultimately been more hampered by the unfree market for water in California than improved by government’s interferences so far. Although citizens of California have been bribed and strong-armed into reducing water consumption, this is more symbolic than anything because agricultural purposes account for much more of the state’s water usage. And it’s not the dietary decadence of Californians that creates the problem either (although we really do eat avocado on everything) – California largely feeds the country, and makes up for states that house people but which aren’t suitable for producing many foods.

The most reasonable way forward is to increase the extent to which water is market priced (gradually, if necessary). Market prices for water encourage responsible consumption, force inevitable trade-offs between water-requiring activities, and properly stimulate the good stewardship of existing water and production of new usable water sources by those relevantly positioned. Market prices for water also trickle down (pun intended) through other industries, resulting in more accurately priced goods, like meat, and services, like lawn care.

When water is underpriced and everyone can effectively use as much as she likes, no one is forced to exercise any restraint – until the well starts running dry. In any case, there is no returning to some pre-political state from which we can re-divide up the water in a fair manner, once and for all. Every process for doing so (from dictatorial fiat to popular vote) would introduce deep new moral questions without ready answers.

Forward-looking considerations matter deeply, too: helping citizens today at the expense of harming citizens tomorrow is no morally-neutral choice. Political processes are also bad at managing water in a forward-looking manner, because politicians need votes today, so tough choices get deferred for literally as long as possible. But perhaps the situation is now dire enough to force some real action, like significant local and regional moves towards market-priced water. Many California homes and businesses don’t even have water meters, but those will be required by 2025, allowing for the tracking and pricing of specific entities’ usage.

Some harms associated with a switch to market pricing for water can be defrayed by government action at the margins. For those truly in need, water stamps could fulfill a similar purpose as food stamps, or an annual tax credit could be offered to individuals and families based on the baseline water usage a household of their size would be expected to purchase. One California city that began market pricing its water helps residents to smooth their bills month-to-month and conducts audits to help homeowners look for inefficiencies.

Less effective government programs, like tax credits for high-efficiency appliances, could be phased out, because when water’s market priced the incentive to use less for daily chores is built right into the appliance purchase. Authorities would only need to patrol for actual market-priced water theft (like connecting your hose to your neighbor’s pipes) which is a much smaller job as compared to preventing unauthorized usage and waste of water (like people watering lawns in the middle of the night during attempted bans). When water is the right price, water-intensive industries try hard to reduce their needs so demand doesn’t plummet for their products –indeed, market-priced water could even hasten the development of lab-grown (less water-intensive) meat.

No one wants to pay for something that used to feel free, or that was artificially cheap. But charging for water is the only way to distribute the existing supplies in anything close to a rational manner, and for ensuring that innovations in water sourcing can take place before it’s too late. Strangely enough, market pricing means the desires of distasteful Californians wishing to heavily water large lawns in the middle of the drought can be channeled for good instead of for evil. When they’re not wasting water, but buying it, big water users (and water bottling operations) can subsidize the research and development that will bring more sustainable water to their communities in the future.

Education and a Free Society: Part Two

Previously, Prindle director Andrew Cullison argued that libertarians should favor public education because well-educated citizens would be more likely to endorse and support a generally free political structure. In response, I pointed out that school doesn’t do a great job of teaching the relevant subjects, and that most of the gains to becoming educated (especially attending college) are individual gains, not public goods. To top it all off, voters are generally uninformed (and have incentives to remain uninformed), and government actors are very good at benefitting themselves rather than their constituents, despite the best intentions of ordinary citizens. Are there any reasons for a libertarian to support education, specifically publicly-funded (i.e. tax-funded) education?

Libertarians are essentially individualists. They generally believe that the individual, and not the country, community, or “society,” is the foundational unit of political (and moral) analysis. For this reason, I previously expressed doubts that libertarians would be friendly to the idea that publicly-funded education is a good way to promote libertarianism. That comes close to seeing voters as a kind of clay to be molded through political processes into a citizens who do what you want them to do (i.e., be libertarian). It may result in the right end state, according to a libertarian, but I’m uneasy with the method. (Ideally, issues that are a matter of fundamental rights would not be subject to popular vote in the first place, anyways).

But this individualism can be understood as logically prior to the libertarianism itself, at least in many or most cases. That is, people hold libertarian political positions because they are sympathetic to the individualist worldview. The individualism, then, explains the libertarianism. And individualism can also generate a kind of defense of publicly-funded (even compulsory, tax-funded) education.

As individualists, we should be concerned at all times with how policies that target groups actually affect individuals, benefitting some at the cost of others. And we should be interested in designing institutions that foster individual virtues like self-reliance, responsibility, and autonomy (or allowing these institutions to emerge).

Inconveniently, though, individuals don’t enter the world ready for full autonomy (and responsibility). Instead, they enter as babies and then kids who require significant growth and development to be ready for the primetime of adult life. Families do a pretty good job of raising their young, certain tragic examples notwithstanding, and it would be of greater harm than benefit to attempt to re-organize this basic feature of human societies (even apart from the rights violations involved).

We, as a society, can’t fully compensate for the differences between people and the ways in which their parents raise them differently within the bounds of moral permissibility (and even if this were possible, it’s not clear that it’s morally required or desirable). But we can provide some kind of a basic education to all as an acknowledgment of the capacities each person has – and of the responsibilities a free society will expect her to bear as an adult.

Deciding how much and what kind of education fulfills this individualist purpose won’t be easy, and certainly depends on the context (how prosperous a society is, what the job market is like, etc). But respecting and protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals is the best reason for governments to get involved in education (if there is a compelling one in the end at all). Education markets don’t experience “market failure” in the traditional sense, and it’s unjust to educate students with an eye towards turning them into particular kinds of voters. But the kind of individualism that animates libertarian political positions can also motivate a principled desire to see each citizen receive the education she needs to operate within the kind of society maintained around her.