The Libertarian as a Logical Thinker

An excerpt from my latest essay, on libertarian thinking as a process rather than as an outcome.

What I am suggesting is that libertarians, rather than defining ourselves in terms of what we believe is right, could instead define ourselves in terms of how one should arrive at beliefs about what is right. Our goal should be to rely as much as possible on logic and as little as possible on heuristic biases. If using these methods leads to the conclusions that are traditionally libertarian, fine. If not, then we should change our conclusions, not our methods.

I think it is best to read the entire essay.

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8 Responses to The Libertarian as a Logical Thinker

  1. roystgnr says:

    Rational thinking should be aspired to by thinkers of every political philosophy, and even if it’s true that libertarians are better at it on average, it doesn’t follow that rationality can define libertarianism. You can’t solve the “is-ought problem” by getting really *really* good at “is”.

    Rationality might be enough to effectively “merge” libertarianism with other goals, though. I used to think of “left-libertarianism” as libertarianism with more touchy-feely marketing, but I’ve seen a number of interesting arguments that suggest the possibility that you can honestly start out as a liberal (USA parlance) with respect to your preferred ends and logically come to very libertarian conclusions with respect to preferable means.

  2. Eric Hanneken says:

    I agree with your advice on approaching moral issues, although I think at its base morality is nothing but intuition. There is an is-ought gap, as Hume put it, and when that is reached argument must cease (or, at least, productive argument must cease).

    I also wonder why your essay appeals specifically to libertarians. If you’re not confident that libertarians are even slightly more likely to think logically, and if we ought to reject libertarian conclusions when they conflict with logic (I agree), then why not ask everyone to work more in System Two?

  3. Bret says:

    What the essay doesn’t address is preferences (the “ought” identified by roystgnr above). If your preferences and my preferences conflict, then all the logical “System Two” type thinking you apply is not going to convince me of anything. Nor should it.

    Basic premises for most substantial arguments also vary by thinker (per Sowell’s “Conflict of Visions”). If we can’t agree on, say, the perfectability of the human animal, then even pure and perfectly good logic will lead us to completely different conclusions.

    It seems to me that these are the sorts of things that keep the liberal/libertarian/conservative divide wide and growing, not lack of System Two type thinking. I suspect Krugman’s thinking is plenty logical, but his writing is based on achieving ideological goals because his preferences and assumptions are different than libertarians and conservatives.

    Lastly, the call for “System Two” thinking seems to me to echo Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit”. All of these debates occur under overwhelming complexity and uncertainty, and it’s far from clear that careful thought will do all that much better than heuristics anyway (which is to say that both will provide bad results most of the time).

  4. Seth says:

    In contrast, I believe libertarians should find ways to articulate their beliefs that appeal to System One if they ever hope to expand their beliefs beyond the part of the population that Rodenberry represented as Spock in Star Trek.

    • Bret says:

      That’s funny. I’ve often thought of Kling as a bit Spock-like.

      But yes, I think that’s extremely important to keep in mind that logic and clear thinking neither sells nor convinces large swaths of the population. Narratives sell and that’s because they can appeal to System One thinkers.

  5. ThomasL says:

    Peter Abelard’s attempt to produce a complete philosophical system out of logic (ie, to reduce philosophy–the study of ultimate reality–to pure logic) is well chronicled in the early chapters of Gilson’s the Unity of Philosophical Experience.*

    Abelard was a great man, probably too great to see that what he was attempting was beyond his–or any man’s–grasp. While I respect logic, I would hesitate to repeat his enterprise.

    * Gilson’s book is fantastic. Highly recommended.

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  7. Matt D. says:

    In the free market do participants behave rationally as a result of determining the best rational course for themselves, and thus acting on it? Or is it the case that the institutions of the free market *impose* rationality on the actors? I would argue the latter not the former.

    Surely there is an analogous process taking place when we talk about our methodology for dealing with ideas. Just like the market is too complex for any individual to understand, the logical consequences of most ideas are often too complex to allow for any type of justification. In the absence of justification, how do we deal with ideas then?

    This is mostly what Karl Popper’s philosophy is about — I recommend I. E. Jarvie’s paper on this, “the Republic of Science”:

    Rationality consists not of justifying one’s opinions, but merely in following certain institutional rules. Even the rules of logic — which mostly operate critically, can be considered instances of such an institutional structure.

    This view is actually very Hayekian, which goes a long way in explaining why Popper and Hayek found themselves such strong intellectual comrades.

    Most libertarians understand the importance of working with institutions in the face of uncertainty — while those who favor at least some degree of central planning often do not.

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