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Explaining Liberalism in Discussion

This post is highlights from my discussion about liberalism on the Fallible Ideas discord chatroom (it's public, you can join and ask questions or discuss).


curi: liberalism is a principled system. because it's based on principles, it is "extreme". the principles are taken seriously using logic. no exceptions are allowed for the sake of moderation, only due to logical reasoning.
curi: the liberal system of government does not consider basic needs. that is not the principle. hence it doesn't provide food. the logic is totally different.
curi: the purpose of a liberal government is to protect man's rights. that means, essentially, to protect man against violence.
curi: building roads or schools does not protect man's rights, and therefore is not the proper business of government.
curi: the government is special compared to other organizations. it is tasked with controlling the use of violence. because of its involvement with violence, its size and function should be minimized. violence is very dangerous. you don't want the people with the guns doing extra stuff, like being involved with farming, because that gets guns and violence involved with farming unnecessarily.
curi: it would be nice if the government could be funded in a fully voluntary way, but we don't currently know how to do that, so we allow it to raise taxes by force.
curi: this is a very dangerous power – the initiation of force against people who are not persuaded to cooperate voluntarily – so its use must be strictly controlled and minimized.
curi: the necessary condition for a peaceful society and successful government – which is highly desirable so that men can have their rights protected, including against murder and robbery – is the consent of the governed. without voluntary consent from the majority (preferably a large majority), bad things happen. the government has to use force to suppress revolutions, or there will be a revolution. but as long as most people are willing to pay taxes and consent to it, then it can work, and threatening the small minority with violence is unfortunate but at least doesn't destabilize or ruin society.
curi: the situation of living with one's rights protected, and without any limits on your actions other than not violating the rights of others, is called freedom. in short, it's freedom from violence, and freedom to do non-violent actions. in a free society, capitalism is largely implied. what's to stop it? people are free to trade, and to decline trades. people are free to bargain as they will amongst themselves, hire and fire each other, offer goods or services at any prices they wish, etc, etc. people could choose to act in other ways, like giving lots of stuff away without worrying about money prices, so understanding capitalism and its advantages is important, but most current deviations from capitalism could not happen in that situation because they involve rights violations. government intervention in the economy (price controls, tariffs, taxation to fund things other than defending men's rights) and socialism are rights violations – violent attacks on freedom.
curi: in this society, the division of labor is advantageous. it allows economic specialization. instead of us both producing 2 things, we can each produce 1 and trade, and be better at it b/c we have less things to optimize. division of labor also fosters peace (with neighbors, within a country, and internationally) b/c if you use violence against trading partners after you specialize then you dramatically lower your standard of living (b/c you're bad at producing the thing you relied on them to produce).
curi: liberalism is a system where men deal with each other by reason and voluntary cooperation, not violence. you can make offers and appeal to people's reason. interactions only happen for mutual benefit because, given freedom, people will decline offers they don't think benefit them. more or less anything may be accomplished if men are persuaded to do it, but men who are not persuaded are free to live their own life their own way. in this way, people who choose to be involved in projects (like business ventures) take responsibility for the outcomes, and gain the rewards or suffer the losses.
curi: if you want someone to do something or give you something, you can persuade him (including by offering things in return, or by arguing in favor of charity, or by saying what an important use for it you have and why you can't pay, or whatever else) or you can find another option. it's up to him whether to listen, or agree, or not. you don't get to control his life or his property. but if you have a really good idea that requires his property, then the typical thing that happens is: you offer more money for it than it's worth to him, and you both benefit. the reason this works is you have a better use of it than he does. so e.g. you can use it in a way that it helps create $1000/day and he was only getting $500/day value from it, so you can offer to pay him the net present value of an annuity worth $750/day or whatever.
curi: rights violations – violence – are seen as harm and are suppressed. but failure to help someone – lack of benefits – is a completely different category and happens all the time and is totally fine. people have no obligation to help each other, and no right to demand help from people who are not persuaded (with reason, money, or whatever as long as its voluntary) to help.
curi: violence must be suppressed. without that, society will be destroyed by any malcontent or evil bastard or whatever. but lack of benefits must not be suppressed, or else everyone would become slaves to the needy, and it would require massive violence to enforce that.

compSciSooner: I understand what you saying
curi: ok. do you think that your argument about evolution refutes a specific thing i said above so far?
compSciSooner: I think that I would modify it or change tack as I see a difference in values/principles that leads to different perspectives on how society should be structured
curi: ok. so you disagree with some significant part of the above?
compSciSooner: With the starting values. You seem to value "non violence" and minimizing violence is what we should focus on and this society is structured to minimize that
compSciSooner: I would start with something like "non suffering" and would minimize suffering. Suffering being the human experience, 'how to make peoples lives better' would be the motivating question
curi: yes. violence hurts people and also it's antithetical to reason. settling disputes by violence is not a truth-seeking method.
compSciSooner: behind society.
compSciSooner: I agree that we should minimize violence
curi: do you perhaps want to use violence (only with super majority consent, perhaps) to hurt one person to try to help two people (or 200 people, or even one person but to a large enough degree that you think it outweighs the harm of the violence)? is that the point of disagreement?
compSciSooner: If you mean physically hurt, then no. But, for a practical example, taxation is the threat of violence and use of force. But it is necessary and I dont see taxation as harm
curi: i went over taxation above.
curi: there's no principled difference between involuntary taxation and violence. if someone complies for fear of violence, or because you actually punch him, either way you are shutting his mind, reason and judgment out of the equation, and you are making an enemy of him.
compSciSooner: I dont disagree with that but I think it that when that is used to justify less government and/or taxation that it misses societal needs and practicality and how people actually act in the world.

Like I said, these ideas of non violence and government arent new to me. I used to think the model of what you have clarified above would be the model society.
curi: is your disagreement that you're in favor of some violence, not allowed in the liberal system, because you think that violence against a minority will help others sufficiently to be worth it?
compSciSooner: You state the governments purpose should be to minimize violence. I say it should be to increase the general welfare of the people, like that one document says. I think its the declaration of ind
curi: by some metric like utilitarianism or minimizing suffering.
curi: so is that a "yes" to my question?
compSciSooner: Yes, to increase the general welfare, minimize suffering
compSciSooner: That sort of thing
compSciSooner: And when we disagree what the purpose of government is, its hard to debate what the government should do and when, I am sure this is why we were having trouble earlier

curi: ok. there is a liberal idea about this which we haven't mentioned yet. it is the harmony of interests idea. liberalism says that there are no conflicts of interest between men in a liberal society. therefore, whatever is best, if it really is best, and you know it, you can persuade people to participate voluntarily and you don't need violence. because you can tell them why it's better for them! if you cannot persuade them, you should learn more about it, not escalate to violence just when your arguments fail you. you are fallible and may be mistaken. and, besides, there are plenty of other good things to do besides this particular project.

one of the main reasons people want to use violence is they think there's a conflict of interest between e.g. the very rich man the the 500 poor ppl who could benefit greatly from his wealth. they think it's for the greater good to hurt the one person to help the 500, but they do not think that's in the interests of the one person. they see a conflict with no win/win solution possible, whereas liberalism says there is always a win/win solution that could be found (and if you can't find it, then, in your ignorance, leave each other alone so that you don't risk violently imposing your errors on a person who has the truth of it).
curi: this is related also to belief in objective truth, including about morality. there is one truth of the matter about the right way to act in a situation. and these moral truths about how each person should act are compatible, rather than leading to chaos or violence (which wouldn't make much sense as the moral truth). liberalism rejects doctrines like polylogism (that there are different logics or ways of reasoning or truths for different groups, like by class, race, nation, etc)
G Neto: @compSciSooner >Yes, to increase the general welfare, minimize suffering

Why is it good to let an authority decide what will lead to a general welfare? Or decide what that means?
curi: liberals broadly see conflicts as disagreements about what the truth is, stemming from our ignorance and fallibility, and respond to this with attempts at learning and persuasion and, failing that, leaving each other alone and trying to coexist anyway despite disagreeing – which can be accomplished by not violating each other's rights – not using violence (or threat of violence). liberals find it appalling to respond to a disagreement with violence and are unimpressed by excuses for violence like "i think he's judging in bad faith". liberals see the symmetry in violence – either of us could be wrong, and neither of us knows how to address all the misconceptions or questions or doubts or whatever that the other person has.
curi: people often disagree about what the general welfare is, and also disagree that it should ever require sacrifices or win/lose options (rather than win/win options with mutual benefit). shall we have a civil war over it? or shall the majority force their ideas on the minority, with guns instead of books? is that the way to a better world?
curi: and if violence is to be permitted whenever the majority has some excuse, what will society look like? a struggle for power. coalitions seeking to be the majority and use violence to benefit themselves. conflicts everywhere. and no long term security of property for anyone.
curi: bribery and corruption too, of course. once the government has the power to help some groups and harm other groups, the social cooperation is fundamentally at risk. perhaps a broken system can survive anyway with the good will of many citizens who don't want to gain or abuse power, but it's best to put safeguards at every level possible (majority of citizens love peace and the government has carefully limited powers).
curi: one of the major examples of the harmony of men's interests is the harmony between producer and consumer. the self-interested producer will produce what consumers want, so that he can make the most profit. this serves him and, at the same time, serves the consumers. the self-interested profit motive incentivizes men to create what other men want, to serve the preferences of others.
curi: and if you use violence against people you disagree with, what are the safeguards? what if you're mistaken? how do you make it predictable way in advance so people aren't caught off guard and hurt extra? what do you do about people manipulating or trying to control the use of violence? and won't this violence suppress positive outliers, which always start as a minority and have good reasons for what they are doing which other people don't yet understand, and thus it'll violently suppress the best and brightest human beings and the progress they would have brought? and, for what? if you get e.g. 80% of people to agree on something, surely they have enough wealth between them to do it, do you really need to violently take wealth from those who disagree?
curi: liberals think their system does minimize suffering, overall (because there is no better system). but that's a consequence instead of a design principle. minimizing suffering is hard to figure out how to do (and hard to agree about what is suffering and in what amount) and doesn't lend itself well to good system design. liberalism deals with the problem of what to do when people disagree (leave each other alone – which means not using violence), whereas the various "minimize suffering" schools of thought i've seen don't have as clear or good a way to address the problem of disagreements. note that "majority rules" is not the liberal answer to disagreements in general, and liberals fear the "tyranny of the majority" and carefully limit what powers the majority vote has. the majority vote is not seen by liberalism as a guide to truth. (majority opinion is one of the common answers for how to address disagreements about what constitutes minimizing suffering). also majority vote/opinion is unpredictable in advance, so it's unsuitable for doing our best to put violence under objective, predictable limits.
curi: another part of liberalism is equality before the law. no special legal privileges by caste, race, having a grandfather who was important in winning a war, etc. everyone is equal when it comes to the government and the use of violence. laws should not target specific groups for different treatment, let alone individuals. one implication is not using the law to take from a minority group to help another group – that would not be equality before the law, whether or not some people believe it minimizes suffering. (liberals think it would be a major cause of suffering to take that kind of action because it's breaking and harming the system itself that creates peaceful cooperation and social harmony. it creates a totally different kind of society where the government is the enemy of some men, and there are conflicts between rival interest groups, and political battles get nasty because they are about who gets to used violence against who.)
curi: Tangentially, on anarchism: many liberals, including myself, are interested in how to improve the liberal system. From the liberal perspective, it would be better if the government was funded in a fully voluntary way, without the violent collection of taxes from anyone. Further, there are some notable upsides to be gained if one didn't have a government at all. The goal is to refine liberalism, not to replace it with a different system. Without debating whether this can be achieved, I will say I think it has not been achieved, and so I'm not advocating a liberal-anarchist system today. I disagree with those who think they figured liberal anarchism out and it's ready to go.

compSciSooner: I was going to read all your posts previously
compSciSooner: Until I saw you most recent post on anarchism
compSciSooner: The idea that anarchism is something we should want to implement if we could only figure out how
compSciSooner: Is an idea so preposterous, you have lost all credibility as some one who isn't naive or crazy or at least has practical ideas
compSciSooner: For all your research you claim to have done
compSciSooner: You seem to be caught up in ideology and can't/won't accept any ideas/research/facts that contradict with your principled system
compSciSooner: And I hope you eventually become as intellectually honest with yourself as you claim to be
compSciSooner: But until then, bye
compSciSooner: It's like arguing with a communist, the ideas are so obviously preposterous, until said communist realizes how wrong they are, the discussion is pointless
compSciSooner: It is like arguing with a flat earther, I am not going to prove the earth is round, it is, I am not going to prove communism is bad, we should all agree on that, I am not going to argue that anarchism is a terrible idea, it should be obvious!
curi: you're exactly like the ppl who freak out the moment i question global warming
compSciSooner: Like I said, intellectually dishonest. Do you have an education in climate science? No? Then don't tell me what the guys who have PhD's in the subject tell the rest of us is peer-reviewed research


Then he gave permission to post the discussion and use his name (which I had offered to anonymize), then left. Plus the chatroom is labelled as public.

Italics were omitted. Not all messages above were consecutive, but many were. Here's the full log (79 page pdf). The rest is more of a chaotic mess (it was hard to get him to answer questions) instead of a clear explanation of ideas.


Elliot Temple on August 25, 2018

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