Sunday, 6 February 2011

"What?" - Fisking Alain de Botton

This will be the second article on libertarianism I've written in as many days. I promise, it won't be an enduring theme. But a friend of mine linked me to an article written on the BBC website by philosopher Alain de Botton. I've read it, and my head is spinning with a multiplicity of objections, which I will attempt to set down in writing if only in an attempt to structure them.

It bears remembering that I am not a scholar of libertarian philosophy, but nonetheless the whole article came across to me as hypocritical cant. To be clear, my objection here is not to the defence of the nanny state itself (others have written far better critiques than I) but to de Botton's attempt to ground the entire argument in an appeal to libertarian beliefs. Let's go through it, a couple of paragraphs at a time:

A key assumption of modern politics is that we should be left alone to live as we like without being nagged, without fear of moral judgement. Freedom has become our supreme political virtue.

It is not thought to be the government's task to promote a vision of how we should act towards one another or to send us to hear lectures about parenting, chivalry or politeness. Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology.

Is it? Perhaps it is in America, but I've never got the impression that 'freedom' is of political paramountcy over here. Anti-terror laws excite an activist minority but aren't the main political concerns of the ordinary voters, punitive deterrent-taxation on certain goods is accepted and the smoking ban supported by many people. We still see politicians and public figures hounded by the media (and by extension their readership) about their private lives. Political correctness holds people to as exacting a standard of speech and manner as Christian values did in the Victorian era, and is exactly a promoted vision of how we should act toward one another. Modern politics on both the left is increasingly managerial and statist, and the right (although better) can hardly be called a libertarian stronghold. If Mr de Botton believes that the current Labour and Conservative parties are libertarian, it is to debase that word beyond all meaning.

Sections of the public grow more or less apoplectic at the idea that governments might want to teach us anything. Even modest measures like trying to get people to eat less fatty food or drive less petrol-guzzling cars tends to provoke howls of protest that this is going simply too far.

It is a sign of this climate that the current government has almost given up all attempts to tell us anything. It seeks just to nudge us in extremely modest, quiet ways to donate our livers if we have a car crash or to file our tax returns on time. But that's about as far as it dares to go.

Extremely subtle ways such as the smoking ban, proposing to remove cigarettes from being display and whacking punitive levies on tobacco and alcohol? By continuing to wage a long-failed "war on drugs" against things like cannabis? The first paragraph is smoke and mirrors. 'Sections of the public' can get apoplectic about more or less anything, but how many constitute a 'section'? The sentence also presents no explanation of why the existence of 'howls of protest' offer any guarantee that the government will stop. New Labour had created a good 3600 new offences three whole years before it left office and there's been no great repeal since the coalition got into power. The government actively considers (and sometimes implements) policies such as curfews, no-alcohol zones and congestion charging.

All this concern with freedom can be traced back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill, who in his famous book, On Liberty of 1859, explained: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."

In this scheme, the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members. The foibles of citizens should be placed beyond comment or criticism, for fear of turning government into that most reviled and unpalatable kind of authority in libertarian eyes - the nanny state.

Given that I've already established that the government isn't nearly so pre-occupied with 'freedom' as de Botton makes out, the first section is rather disingenuous. As for the second paragraph - which de Botton takes issue with - it is describing what most libertarians (perhaps even most politically-minded people) I know would call 'libertarianism'. But not de Botton.

Compare this with how religions handle things. Religions have always had much more directive ambitions, advancing far-reaching ideas about how members of a community should behave towards one another.

Consider Judaism, for example. Certain passages in the Jewish legal code, or Mishnah, have close parallels in modern law. There are familiar-sounding statutes about not stealing, breaking contracts or exacting disproportionate revenge on enemies during war.

However, a great many other decrees extend their reach dramatically far beyond what a libertarian political ideology would judge to be appropriate. The code is obsessed with the details of how we should behave with our families, our colleagues, strangers and even animals.

Nothing wrong with this particular section, except the slight irony about the 'directive ambitions' bit given what is coming. The lengthy couple of paragraphs that follow it describing various examples of the Mishnah demanding particular things of adherents are purely factual (I assume) and not worth repeating here. Moving on.

Libertarian theorists would concede that it is no doubt admirable to try to satisfy a spouse's sexual needs, to be generous with olives and to keep one's elders abreast of one's travel plans. However, they would also condemn as peculiar and plain sinister any paternalistic attempt to turn these aspirations into statutory pronouncements. When to feed the dog and ask widows over for supper are, according to a libertarian world view, questions for the conscience of the individual rather than the judgement of the community.

In secular society, by the libertarian's reckoning, a firm line should divide conduct that is subject to law from conduct that is subject to personal morality. Thus, the stealing of an ox is a matter to be investigated by a police officer, whereas not having enough sex with your wife if you're a camel driver is not.

That sounds like the libertarianism I know. I sense a 'but' coming...

Looking back upon centuries of religious self-assurance, libertarians stand transfixed by the dangers of too much conviction. An abhorrence of crude moralism has banished talk of morality from the public sphere. The impulse to probe at the behaviour of others trembles before the incensed question of who anyone might be to tell anyone else how to live.

Libertarians often pity the inhabitants of religiously-dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure. Yet this is to overlook secular societies' equally powerful and continuous calls-to-prayer.

The various assumptions of the first paragraph have been probed above. As for the second, a comparison between a market economy and a theocratic society. Uh oh.

We don't currently live in a "free" society in the true sense of the term. Every day, our minds are assaulted by commercial messages that reach us from all sides. The whole billion-pound-a-year advertising industry runs counter to any assertion that we're currently free and un-nudged as it stands.

There we go. The word free has been put in scare-marks and the existence of a state of 'true' freedom has been stated. The word 'true' in this context is a means by which the author can de-legitimise any interpretation of 'free' that is at variance with his own, in a similar manner to the way in which certain religious people might concede that both Christians and Muslims have faith but only one of them is the 'true' faith, or how the myopic proletariat might think they are happy because the evil capitalist class has blinded them from what 'true' happiness - a utopia glimpsed only by our perceptive author.

The second sentence plays into my last example quite strongly. It echoes those on the left who, when faced with the utter reluctance of the rich-world working class to rise up and become the vanguard of socialism, found refuge in paternalism. If de Botton is seriously claiming that the vast majority of fiscally autonomous people in this country are incapable of coping with advertising then he is treating them literally as children. Nobody who thinks like that would conclude that libertarianism is the philosophy for them.

Finally, it bears mentioning that de Botton draws a false parallel when he implies parity between the 'nudge' of an advert and the sort of pressures that can be experienced by those in tight-knit religious communities, even within liberal democracies. The former is suggestive, and your average human being is capable of acting upon it - or not - according to their own preferences. The latter is - either through force, social stigma or other means - coercive. 'Advertising is tyranny' is the weak argument of a would-be tyrant.

A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would accept that our freedom is best guaranteed by an entirely neutral public space. It would judge that it was no assault on liberty to deprive us of all advertisements in fields, city streets, taxis, websites, phone booths, tube stations, dentists waiting rooms, airport concourses or Hollywood films.

No it wouldn't. Would so 'libertarian' a state even allow Hollywood films? After all, they're chock-full of influences to 'assault' my impressionable little mind. How would I choose a film in the first place? Presumably, advertising is forbidden lest it suggest to me that I go and see the film... This 'neutral' public space is not only restricting our ability to communicate with the wider public, but also depriving we the public of access to information on the basis that we can't possibly handle such things. This is sounding pretty totalitarian to me.

An alternative option would be to build a more plural system of advertising, where the traditional commercial messages paid for by Procter & Gamble or Nike were balanced out by ones promoting ingredients of the good life as defined by Aristotle and others. Advertisements for 4x4 jeeps would run alongside ones evoking the importance of what the Greek philosopher eloquently termed kalokagathia or nobility of spirit.

This seems to be advocating that advertising be coupled with a very specific set of things. Not partnering an advertisement with a product with an advertisement for a competing product, but to things that Alain de Botton thinks are important. As a libertarian he wouldn't want to impose his own values about such things onto people, so maybe those two examples are incidental to his case...

If we tend to think so often about eating crisps and buying cars, but relatively little about being nice or just, the fault is not merely our own. It is also that these two cardinal virtues are not generally in a position to become clients of Saatchi and Saatchi. Only the more negligible of goods presently have the resources to insist that we keep them foremost in our minds.

...or perhaps not. How many things are wrong with this paragraph from a libertarian perspective? There's the idea that we spend more time thinking about our daily lives than abstract (although I fancy quite specific in the mind of the author) conceptions of how we should behave is a fault, and that these ill-defined concepts are 'cardinal virtues'. How are we supposed to be able to judge that when the author doesn't actually define what he means by them? We can't assume normal libertarian definitions because this is not a libertarian argument. The author also derides the day-to-day consumer goods that ordinary people spend some time thinking about, in addition to asserting that it is always these (rather than one's loves, work and friends) that are 'foremost in our minds'. Such is the terrifying power of advertising.

In the modern world, there is so much that we would like to do but never end up doing, there are so many ways of behaving that we subscribe to in our hearts but ignore in our day-to-day lives. And perhaps most significantly, there are so few people around us who dare to exhort us to act well.

The exhortations we need are typically not terribly complex: forgive others, don't be mean about people you envy, dare to apologise, be slow to anger. These are things we know we ought to do but which we manage to forget at key moments.

Say I were to offer you two options about who wrote those two paragraphs: a libertarian, or a clergyman writing an article for one of the Sundays. Which would you pick? In this section de Botton is advocating exactly the sort of state-sponsored moral teaching the supposed absence of which is meant to have marked the triumph of liberty at the top of this very article. He doesn't even provide any justification for how, in a libertarian framework, the 'exhortations' he advises are even right at all - it is just assumed that they are. That cuts no libertarian ice, I'm afraid.

We are holding to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves if we think we are above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about being good. When we fail to be kind, we are not usually happy about our lapses. The mature sides of us watch in despair as the childish sides of us trample upon our principles and ignore what we most deeply revere. We may begin to wish that someone could come along and save us from ourselves.

We're now into the territory of an outright reactionary tract. The basic message of this paragraph is that we all instinctively 'deeply revere' things that de Botton considers very important, which is convenient. But being the weak, easily led beings that we are, we're being prevented from being virtuous by all the darned freedom we presently enjoy. If only an enlightened elite could run an establishment designed to keep us all on the virtuous path. Its basically a 21st century version of a counter-Enlightenment pamphlet.

If we stick to plain examples of what a libertarian might object to in this passage: the assumption in the first sentence that we think too highly of ourselves if we don't want to be lectured about morality (again, see the opening paragraphs of de Botton's article above for the contrast); the idea that what de Botton considers to be good is just what is good; the idea that failing to reach his standards is a lapse; the idea that the sides of us that exercise freedom at variance from prescribed virtue are childish; and the suggestion that we 'may' wish for someone (guess who?) to come and 'save us from ourselves.' More than one per sentence. From a linguistic perspective, de Botton continues to provide no definition of what constitutes kindness (and thus what constitutes a lapse) so one cannot engage with his criteria. The last sentence doesn't dare to actually say we need saving (although that is clearly the authors view) but instead addresses the issue in a mealy-mouthed manner that leaves the author vast tracts of wriggle room if challenged.

The true risks to us turn out to be different from those conceived of by libertarians. It is not always or even primarily the case that we find ourselves at the mercy of some external, paternalistic authority whose claims we resent and want to be free of. Only too often, the danger runs in an opposite direction. We face temptations and compulsions which we revile, but which we lack the strength and encouragement to resist, much to our eventual self-disgust and disappointment.

It seems superfluous to say it again, but the author once again asserts without evidence that we the general population revile a series of undefined temptations and compulsions which I think can be understood to be code for 'the exercise of our own judgement in consumer society', then states that we give in to these temptations only because we're weak and unsupported by an amoral state. He also dismisses the idea that the state presently plays any serious role in governing peoples' lives, ridiculous as that is. It turns out that far from freedom having won, de Botton is exactly the sort of threat conceived of by libertarians.

In a society that took seriously our laziness about being nice, an occasional paternalistic reminder would not necessarily constitute an infringement of our "liberty" as that term should be properly understood. Being free should not invariably entail being left totally to one's own devices, it should also be compatible with being admonished and harnessed. Complete freedom can be a prison all of its own.

Now, there are many arguments that hold that it is proper to infringe upon liberty in pursuit of a higher objective in certain cases. It is the basis of nearly all law, and the great majority of people would agree I think that a degree of law (perhaps a great degree of law, depending on your preference) is good. If one has the courage of that conviction one should not need to try to beat the concept of liberty into a shape that is entirely at ease with being 'harnessed', of all words. At no point does de Botton spell out how exactly one should 'properly' understand liberty. If his article is our evidence, liberty means that we must be held to his conception of what is good, which is a very strange definition of liberty indeed. If in de Botton's mind 'complete freedom' is a prison, it is a prison built out of his imposition of his own moral code on the rest of the populace. Again, not something that can be viewed as a libertarian or post-libertarian aspiration.

It is perhaps in the end a sign of immaturity to object too strenuously to sometimes being treated like a child. Why does the idea of a nanny state always have to be so terrifying? The libertarian obsession with freedom ignores how much of our original childhood need for constraint endures within us, and therefore how much we stand to learn from certain paternalistic strategies. It is not much fun, nor ultimately even very freeing, to be left alone to do entirely as one pleases.

Another false parallel here. Children aren't free. There are good reasons why we constrain the actions of people who have not yet developed the capacity to make their own decisions, but they are not free. At the nub of this whole argument is the fact that de Botton's article is advocating a moralistic, paternalist state but does not have the courage to do so outright, so borrows the robes of liberty and freedom. After declaring (falsely) at the beginning of the article that freedom has won in what I now realise must have been a lament, de Botton spends the rest of the article trying to explain how we're only actually free if we believe what he believes. The comparisons between free adults and children become more and more explicit as the article progresses.

Paternalists and authoritarians rarely believe in mankind's need for guidance on its own - it must always be their moral code that people are held do. I do not imagine for a second that de Botton would appreciate it if a group of people who didn't agree with him came to power and established the paternalistic state he advocates, correcting him on moral judgements he has reached but the authorities deem to be wrong. De Botton presumably has specific meanings or interpretations in mind when he refers to such vague banalities as 'kindness' and 'justness', but he has not the courage to spell them out. The article reads like a failure of nerve from start to finish. Instead of boldly arguing for a return to a paternalistic social system articulating his own moral code, de Botton hedges all his arguments in caveats and the borrowed language of the supposedly triumphant 'libertarianism'. Of course, it was always unlikely that any man who considered both the Conservatives and Labour to be 'libertarian' would be anything of the sort.

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