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The Framework is Libertarian, But Any Community Within It Need Not Be

September 11, 2009
Is There Really One Kind of Life Which Is Best For Each of These People?

Is There Really One Kind of Life Which Is Best For Each of These People?

Yesterday, I introduced Nozick’s utopian thought experiment. It’s a fanciful tale in which you have to power to act like Nightcrawler: in the event you do not particularly value the world you find yourself in, you can teleport yourself instantaneously to another world. You also have the godlike power to create a better world to teleport to. Nozick’s conclusion is that no individual would countenance living in a world that took more from him than he received. Despite outrageous assumptions, what emerges is a competitive market for association, one that eliminates free-riders and negative externalities.

Of course, you may say Nozick’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one:

Not one lyric in the entire song about exit! But I am the walrus!…Because, just imagine, it might be a nice place to visit, but not to live….Anyway, if we admit the virtues of a framework for utopia, what would it look like in real life? What would be its closest approximation?

Well, for starters, we’d have to find ways to reduce the cost of exit and entry. We also need more options (see, Seasteading, Charter Cities, and Free Zones.) And unlike the thought-experiment, there’s no way to dream away externalities. Communities impinge upon each other. There will have to be some method of adjudicating disputes. Another problem involves the costs of gathering information on potential communities, what they’re like, how people fare in them. The list continues: there’s a possibility that members of a community will lie and keep its members in the dark as to what life  on the outside is like. (Think M. Night Shamalama Ding Dong’s The Village.) Disbanding some communities is easier said than done.

This little gadanken appears harmless enough. Ridiculous, yet informative–it illustrates how the power of exit creates an efficient market for public goods. Unfortunately, not everyone values exit this highly. Some define freedom by voice. Others, like Patrick Deneen, want to tighten the screws on entrapment:

This, in a microcosm, is a central paradox of our political system: our cosmopolite meritocrats theoretically admire localism but abhore [sic] the idea of living within the confines that such life would entail; our Red-State locals tend to despise cosmopolites, but support (and vote for) an economic system that encourages borderlessness, placelessness, and a profoundly abstract economy that has the effect of eviscerating those very localities. This arrangement is one of the central features undermining the localist cause today, and it’s difficult to see how it will be reversed.

Deneen doesn’t consider whether or not these places are worth living in. Evidently one bed would have been enough for Goldilocks. And at the Front Porch Republic Jeremy Beer writes:

We need to encourage people, especially young people, to think about location (”location vs. vocation” would be a nice catchphrase to popularize), and to burden the question of location — of place — with the weight of ethical importance, rather than treating it as yet one more consumer decision to be made and thus submitting it only to the usual financial criteria.

This is small beer, but he concludes:

Discourage mobility!-a good ironic bumper sticker for someone to create.

Let us distinguish three kinds of utopian visionaries. First, there are imperialistic utopians. They believe it is morally desirable to coerce everyone into one pattern of community, namely their own. Missionary utopianism sticks to one boring position community, but adherents do not force others to accept it. Instead, they hope to peacefully persuade or convince others. Existential utopians merely hope for their preferred community to exist and be viable, so that those who wish for such arrangements can attain them.  So long as their longed for community exists, they live and let live.

Missionary and existential utopians ought to support the real world correlatives of Nozick’s framework. Imperial utopians, not so much.

Having seen tidbits of Obama’s speech on healthcare, I believe it’s safe to say he’s an imperialistic utopian. I can’t speak for Patrick Deneen, Jeremy Beer or Charles Taylor, for that matter. But their views come close to communitarian imperialism.

What kind of people do these imperialists think we are? Given how people differ in personality, in desires, aspirations, intellectual abilities, and proclivities, given how heterogeneous we all are in nature, it’s absurd to conclude there’s one and only one community that would be ideal for everyone to live in. Even worse would be to assume that wherever you happen to be born is best.

Nozick asks us to consider these theses:

I. For each person there is a kind of life that objectively is best for him.

  • People are similar enough, so that there is one kind of life which objectively is the best for each of them.
  • People are different, so that there is not one kind of life which objectively  is best for everyone, and:
  • The different kinds of life are similar enough so that there is one kind of community (meeting certain constraints) which objectively best for everyone.
  • The different kinds of life are so different that there is not one kind of community (meeting certain constraints) which objectively is best for everyone (no matter which of these different lives is best for them.)

II.  For each person, so far as objective criteria of goodness can tell (insofar as these exist), there is a wide range of very different kinds of life that tie as best; no other is objectively better for him than any one in this range, and no one within the range is objectively better than any other. And there is not one community which objectively is the best for the living of each selection set from the family of sets of not objectively inferior lives.

I find these distinctions most illuminating. What do you assume about others? Below the weaknesses of many political philosophies lies an assumption on how simple and homogeneous humans are.

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  4. Mike Gibson permalink*
    September 14, 2009 8:52 pm

    That’s funny! Yeah, unfortunately he died fairly young. I suppose 60s isn’t too young, but really it’s too soon.

  5. Eelco Hoogendoorn permalink
    September 14, 2009 7:45 pm

    Finally got around to reading Nozick last week; a good read indeed. I kept thinking: he should speak at the conference; not knowing hes dead for a while.

    Anyway, good summary!

    Seasteading: enabling the Nozickean utopia.


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