Paleo-libertarians and their allies in the paleo-conservative camp like to romanticize a bygone era of decentralization, individual responsibility and hearth and home. Bill Kauffman is an example of this overlap, of the sentimental juncture at which self-ownership and a Schumacherian ethos of “small is beautiful” meet. (An audience member at the CATO book forum for Kauffman’s newest described his talk as a “Whitmanesque rant.”) These folks tend to criticize the “beltway libertarians” for being without the gusto, zeal and passion of the paleo-libs, who truck with no apologists for the grim, faceless, bureaucratic state. 

Reading this piece at LRC (HT: Roderick Long) on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement illustrated the tension between “economistic” libertarians and, shall I say, “visceral” libertarians:

It is difficult to define, in terms of a political system, what the Catholic Worker movement stood for, because their philosophy of personalism, which lies at the heart of their ideas, is inherently antithetical to the objectivism, centralization and institutionalism that characterize the activities of the State.

Approvingly quoting a close friend of Day’s, Peter Maurin:

“We must have a sense of responsibility to take care of our own, and our neighbor, at a personal sacrifice. That is the first principle. It is not the function of the state to enter into these realms… Charity is personal. Charity is love.”

It ends with this:

The fundamental Christian value is love, and the political world always has, always will revolve around money and power.

The visceral libertarian agrees, referencing their inner (non-statist) communitarian to damn the Hayekian extended order of corruption, vice and distant, unaccountable “greed.” As an aside, would not a leftist prefer to describe “personalism” (or whatever is antithetical to alienation) as contradictory to the objectivism and organization-man mentality of the rationalizing market? It cuts both ways, and passionate Ron Paul fans are matched by equally passionate folks who find his defense of the free market abysmal.

The economistic libertarian is less moved by intuitively appealing (read: evolutionarily psychological) notions of face-to-face contact, non-instrumental relationships, and chains of association not mediated by the cash nexus. For them, the decision to personally take care of ones neighbor is an amoral one. It isn’t obvious that outsourcing that task to an immigrant entrepreneur is detrimental to humanity. As for charity, the presence of the state is irrelevant to its “personal” quality. That has far more to do with size and organizational structure.

The very economic calculation that the Austrian school (for whom natural rights anarchists – paleo-libertians – comprise the “political wing”) submits is vital to civilization and prosperity (synonymous with urbanity, or impersonalism) is at odds with the reflexively sentimental sense of voluntary association and localism that their Anglo-American, Tocquevillian cultural disposition inspires them to value. Jeffrey Friedman has referred to this as the “libertarian straddle,” or the desire to show that free markets lead to ever better consequences - but if they don’t, well, one can still fall back on the “voluntary” clause, and thus the warm and fuzzy feeling that Tocqueville evokes.

I no longer get so emotionally worked up about the state’s activities –  the normative edge for me is quickly waning. Partly this is due to my being in a relationship with someone who is not a libertarian and thus has no tolerance for angry rants that leave no room for nuance and debate. But it also has to do with the stridency of natural rights dogma in its rejection of utilitarianism (which for the purpose of this post will be synonymous with consequentialism). I’m reminded of the telling quote by Rothbard, frustratingly not on hand, in which he states that positive social outcomes (health, wealth, etc.) and the inviolable (modified) Lockean appropriation of property are merely a “happy coincidence.” 

And if it wasn’t a happy coincidence? He’d be for natural rights anyway. 

Blah. What could possibly be of value in such a political philosophy?

The truth is you can measure utility, and the Austrians who remain committed to the “impossibility” of cardinal rankings of want-satisfaction are being left in the dust (though Mario Rizzo has an excellent grasp of this type of literature). Swiss economist Bruno Frey has been doing work in precisely this area for some time. He writes:

Happiness research has designed several indicators of subjective well-being, relying on different measurement techniques: global evaluations of individual life satisfaction, based on representative surveys; the Experience Sampling Method, collecting information individuals’ actual experience in real time in their natural environments; the Day Reconstruction Method, asking people to reflect on how satisfied they felt at various times during the day; the U (“unpleasant”)- Index, defined as the fraction of time per day that an individual spends in an unpleasant state; and [most importantly for cardinal, interval measurement] Brain Imaging, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan individuals’ for correlates of positive and negative effect.

But this is far from a conclusion that one can construct a measure of national well-being in the fashion of a libertarian paternalist who’s decided to ditch the libertarian part. Most importantly, the individual variation in responsiveness to what are generally agreeable prerequisites for happiness/well being cannot be accounted for by any such necessarily distant and thus merely speculative planners and committee members tasked with maximizing “GNH”, or Gross National Happiness. As Judith Rich Harris would say, “no two are alike.”

In addition, and as Frey stresses, an apparently vital component to happiness (utility gain) is procedural in nature. In other words, the pursuit of happiness itself really is rather happiness inducing. Much of Frey’s critique of the possibility of achieving GNH lies in its anti-democratic implications, and the concomitant risk of undermining the process – or procedure – that is a large part of feeling happy to begin with. An individual sense of agency and self-determination is a significant component of subjective well-being. Frey finds that those in his native Switzerland gain much in utility from their rather extensive democratic (as well as negative) rights, a veritable heaven of participatory democracy relative to many other western nations. The principle-agent problems endemic to large-scale representative democracy, and what the critical theorists refer to as “administered society,” are anathema to even a utility-maximizing apolitical droid – or at least, all else being equal.

Frey writes:

The social welfare maximizing approach, based on empirically estimated happiness functions…disregards the institutions on which democracy is based. Citizens are reduced to “metric stations.” They are forced into a state of passivity, which tends to increase their alienation from the state. In this respect, a happiness maximizing approach is inimical to democracy. It disregards the interaction between citizens and politicians, the interest representation by organized groups and the concomitant information and learning processes.

So it would seem the paleo-libertarians (and their left-leaning, more “thickly” communitarian compatriots) find surprising confirmation in happiness research, or just the sort of statist scientism, aiming for the elevation of an abstract humanism, they so often detest.

It’s hardly a knock-down case, I know, but an interesting angle to push methinks.


UPDATE:  Here is the quote from Rothbard, from “For a New Liberty”:

It so happens that the free- market economy, and the specialization and division of labor it implies, is by far the most productive form of economy known to man, and has been responsible for industrialization and for the modern economy on which civilization has been built. This is a fortunate utilitarian result of the free market, but it is not, to the libertarian, the prime reason for his support of this system. That prime reason is moral and is rooted in the natural-rights defense of private property we have developed above. Even if a society of despotism and systematic invasion of rights could be shown to be more productive than what Adam Smith called “the system of natural liberty,” the libertarian would support this system. Fortunately, as in so many other areas, the utilitarian and the moral, natural rights and general prosperity, go hand in hand.