Some problems with this traditionalist stuff

Adam Gurri has been pushing this line for a while that his “libertarianism” is derived from some kind of status quo deferentialism and deference to prevailing norms, traditions, and so on. He wrote a post today somewhat defending that view even though it would have had him arguing for slavery 150 years ago, for Jim Crow 60 years ago, for feudalism (and against capitalism) a few hundred years ago, and so on.

As I generally do, I suspect that the adoption of this framework is, in significant part, motivated. Gurri wisely sees that you can’t get to libertarianism through any prevailing normative theories in philosophy. The institution of property is inconsistent with voluntarism, negative liberty, the non-aggression principle. Property is also inconsistent with desert. Capitalist economic institutions add another layer of inconsistency with desert. Utility demands transfers. And so on. Dimmer libertarians might think there is some way to scratch out libertarianism from those philosophical schools, but Gurri sees the writing on the wall and avoids them.

In practice, Gurri’s move amounts to refusing to even justify the prevailing institutions with normative arguments. Accordingly, it’s not really something you can engage in any typical normative argumentative way (i.e. this is bad because it leads to some horrific normative outcome like support for slavery). Here I want to list issues with it that mainly stay away from these kinds of normative arguments.

1. Historical Norms of Who?
The first move people make against the status quo deferentialist line is that it would mean support for certain historical atrocities that were consistent with social norms. As I said above, I will try to avoid this argument. Nonetheless, the way the argument unfolds is informative in ways that the usual interlocutors do not seem to notice.

Take slavery for example. Generally, the “traditionalist” (as I will call them here) will say “I support deferring to status quo norms.” Then the critic will say “but that means that, if you were born 150 years ago, you’d support slavery.” Then the traditionalist hems and haws and winces and basically says “yeah you know probably” and then makes sure to remind you in that moment that rationalism doesn’t work.

This entire discussion between the traditionalist and the critic assumes that, had you been born 150 years ago, you would have supported slavery. But surely that depends on whose body you were actually born into in that period and the norms of the in-group that body belonged to. Obviously, a ton of people 150 years ago thought slavery was wrong and should be abolished. It was abolished, after all. The most obvious community of people who likely thought a radical reordering of society in the form of the abolition of slavery would be a good thing were, you know, slaves themselves.

The point here is that there is no such thing as the “traditions and norms of the society.” The traditions and norms of whites in the period may have had you supporting slavery if you deferred to them (unless you belonged to one of the anti-slavery white groups, e.g. the Quakers). But the traditions and norms of slaves in the period would not have you supporting slavery if you deferred to them. So how do you know which norms to defer to? Which ones are the societal ones?

In practice, the “societal norms” in these discussions always refers to the norms of the elite and ruling class. This is typified best by the traditionalist’s effusive love of common law judges, who were (as most judges are now) all plucked from the elite, rich, ruling classes and divined the natural common law in ways that were suspiciously in line with those class interests.

Norms and traditions, both historically and in the present, often diverge along class and race lines, among others. There is no deference to the norms and traditions of the society, only deference to the norms and traditions of certain sub-groups in the society, and the choice of which sub-group you go with is either arbitrary or motivated.

2. Universal Deference is Impossible
There is a paradox involved in forming your views based on deference to the views of others. If everyone formed their views by deferring to the views of others (who were also in this example forming their views by deferring to the views of others), nobody could ever form any substantive views. This is the same paradox that occurs whenever someone says that people should form their views by looking to what the majority thinks. If everyone formed their views by looking to the views of the majority, then there wouldn’t even be the views of the majority.

Traditionalists seem to go about the world as if they are just channeling the views of others and have no standalone views themselves. But someone somewhere has to actually have views of their own. Someone has to just be like “this is just what I think period.” Else, the person looking to defer to the general social norms has nothing to actually defer to.

To be a “participant” (a popular world among the traditionalist sorts) in norm formation is then to actually come up with some standalone views yourself. You can’t just stand above it all and declare that you merely aggregate the prevailing thoughts and make them your own like some normative politician. Everyday people don’t say “this is my view because it coheres with the status quo norms of society.” They say “this is my view because it is right.”

3. Convenient Departures
You can tell what a traditionalists’ real views are (i.e. the standalone ones that actually motivate them) by seeing where they take issue with status quo norm deference. Traditionalists that call themselves libertarians, for instance, seem to greatly dislike Social Security. But Social Security is deeply enmeshed in the status quo. As an economic institution in the US, Social Security has been around about as long as liberal labor market institutions have. Moreover, Social Security has widespread super-majoritarian support among “the people.”

On what basis could a status quo deferential traditionalist libertarian object to Social Security then? There isn’t any. But, as best as I can tell, many do. This is just one example, but there are many others as well. What I’ve found is that, often, the test “does this conform with laissez-faire capitalism” is more predictive of the traditionalist libertarian’s actual policy preferences than the test “does this conform with status quo norms and traditions of society.” When the two overlap, the traditionalist is aggressive about telling you that latter is motivating them. When they don’t, it becomes one of those magical times where departing from the status quo norms is actually OK.

In closing, I want to respond to a ridiculous description of the alternatives to this traditionalist approach to things. This ridiculous description supposes that the alternative is to find one perfect philosophical formula, or what Deirdre McCloskey apparently called a “three-by-five card” philosophy. But if we are going to accuse philosophies of undertaking this formula approach, that must go for the traditionalists as well.

The traditionalist has a formula. They write on a three-by-five card “defer to the status quo norms and traditions.” Then they also secretly scribble on the back “except when doing so conflicts with laissez-faire capitalism.” But we can leave that last part aside.

Contrast this with the utilitarian who says “try to order society so that there is maximum happiness.” Contrast this with an egalitarian who says “try to order society so that the worst off are as well off as possible.” And so on. These are maybe slightly more specific than the content-neutral “defer to whatever is going on” the traditionalist throws out, but they are hardly hyper-specific formulas. Instead, they are general principles that are extremely flexible, allow for different institutions at different historical times and in different contexts, and all of the rest of it.

They also, thankfully, allow people to reason and debate about normative subjects, something “defer to the norms whatever they are” doesn’t allow.