Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Equivocation about Classical Liberalism


Jacob Levy argues that libertarians should not resist intersectional approaches. Levy writes,


To the degree that classical liberals resist intersectional social analysis because of a mood affiliation with their dislike of identity politics in general and the politics of antiracism in particular, I would hope that the current mass movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—and the fact that those opposing that movement include violent agents of state coercion as well as an executive pressing the limits on military involvement in civilian politics—could hasten a change.


In this sentence, Levy's claim seems to be that libertarians should embrace intersectional social analysis because they have very strong reasons to support the mass movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd?


Levy's conclusion doesn't follow from the considerations he mentions earlier in the sentence. But I think it's interesting where Levy's argument goes wrong. First, let's state it in a more general way so we can see the structure of the argument:  


  1. Some people (X's) resist an approach/theory (T) because they oppose issues (A and B) 
  2. Recently, a social movement (M) happened that was about (A and B) but also other issues (C and D) 
  3. X's support (C and D) 
  4. So X's have reason to support M as long as they care about (C and D) more than they oppose (A and B) 
  5. If X's Support M then they should support (A and B) 
  6. Therefore, X's should support (A and B) 
  7. If X's support (A and B) then they should not resist T 
  8. So X's should not resist T.


One thing to notice about this general argument is that (5) and (7) are often going to be really controversial premises. Take (5). Social movements are built on broad coalitions. People can support a movement for their own reasons without signing on to all of the commitments of a movement. For example, classical liberals can consistently support the protests and police reform efforts without changing their minds about identity politics.   


As for (7), even if someone does support antiracism reforms and identity politics, it rarely follows that substantive views like this entail a commitment to a specific method of social analysis. And when it comes to (8) isn't it also kind of strange to think that the thing classical liberals should take from a historic movement against institutional racism and violent policing is that maybe they've been too hard on intersectional social analysis?


There is also a kind of equivocation that happens throughout the argument. Fabio Rojas makes this point in his recent reply to Jacob. Rojas argues that a lot hangs on how we interpret intersectional social analysis (T). Rojas writes:

There are now multiple intersectionality theories. Sure, there are probably many social scientists who are happy to accept the hypothesis that people are "multiply marginalized," and some grumpy libertarians should mellow out and accept that. Jacob is definitely right on that point, and accepting a "basic" intersectionality will help classical liberals understand illiberal social practices better. However, there's a lot more to intersectionality theory than the "basic model," including a tight alliance with Marxist theory and a deep suspicion of markets. At the end of the day, this more expansive, and very popular, version of intersectionality theory is simply incompatible with a normative framework built on a presumption that markets and trade are the best way to organize an economy.


Rojas's point is that it's a mistake to equivocate between these two conceptions of intersectionality. If the theory (T) refers to the first definition (T1), then it doesn't seem like classical liberals should oppose it, but it's also not clear how many classical liberals do oppose it. If it's the second definition (T2), then they should clearly oppose it because T2 is directly opposed to classical liberalism. Levy doesn't make the case that T2 is consistent with classical liberalism.


This point can also be made about other key terms in Levy's analysis. Take his conception of "Classical Liberals." At points, he presents them as people who are committed to free markets and limited government (X1). These classical liberals include those who argue against immigration restrictions, occupational licensing requirements, qualified immunity, and for the decriminalization of sex work, and drug legalization. At other points, he paints classical liberals as a group of Ron Paul stans who are skeptical of antiracism and identity politics, some of whom are racist (X2).


If Levy is addressing (X1), then he should make a case for intersectional social analysis on grounds that don't involve defending identity politics and antiracism, since (X1's) don't really disagree. If Levy is talking about the much smaller group of people who also call themselves classical liberals (X2) and arguing that they should embrace intersectional social analysis because they should also embrace identity politics and antiracism, well, my guess is that such an argument wouldn't make much progress with this group.


Maybe Levy would reply that there are more X2's out there than I acknowledge because many libertarians are unsympathetic to identity politics and antiracism. But here again, the argument rests on a kind of equivocation in Levy's presentation of identity politics and antiracism. For example, if Levy is using the term identity politics (A) to refer to things like Abolish ICE, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo (A1), then I think that most classical liberals (the X1's) would wonder why he thinks they don't broadly support these causes. If Levy is using the term to refer to a narrower set of commitments (A2) like support for campus speech codes or voting for Hillary Clinton, then Levy hasn't shown that classical liberals should embrace this kind of identity politics.


I recognize that this is a kind of clunky way to put the point. But I think this framework is helpful in identifying a more general problem with recent libertarian arguments in the genre of "Why the Liberty Movement Should Embrace the Left" (see e.g., here and here). They define the "Liberty Movement" in a way that evokes the worst versions of the view (X2) and they characterize "the left" (A1/T1) in the most plausible, uncontroversial way.


If these writers considered the best version of "The Liberty Movement" then they would find far less disagreement with the best version of "the left," but that disagreement would be much harder to resolve. It wouldn't be a disagreement about the value of social equality. We all oppose racism and sexism and are committed to helping people in poverty. Rather, the disagreement between the best version of both perspectives would be a disagreement about whether policies that aim to address social inequality are justified given that enforcing them necessarily involves threatening all citizens with state-backed violence. It is a disagreement about how to make tradeoffs between political subordination and social and economic subordination.


There are good arguments on both sides, and there may be more agreement than we think. But libertarians and progressives will only build bridges and find common cause by addressing the best versions of all the views on the table.