Posted by: captainfalcon | March 30, 2010

More on a point of “Not the point”

In “Not the point” I followed – or thought I followed – Rick Hill in arguing that libertarians should take a cynical attitude towards federalism. Put another way, I said that if they affirm federalism, they should do so not because they judge its purpose (permitting localities to craft different policies) to be good, but because they judge it instrumental to advancing towards the goal of a universal night watchman state. In dicta, I added that libertarians should probably also take a cynical attitude towards democracy; if they affirm the value of democracy they should do so not because they judge its purpose (ensuring legislators are answerable, in some sense, to the people) to be good, but because they judge it instrumental to achieving monolithic minarchism.

What I argued makes sense on the assumption that federalism and democracy are both procedural. On this assumption, if they have non-instrumental value it is because (in a range of circumstances) a policy’s being the outcome of one of these procedures justifies it. But libertarianism holds that a policy is good just in case it achieves a particular result (roughly: minimizing rights-violations without violating certain side-constraints). How that result is achieved matters not. So libertarianism doesn’t regard a policy’s being the outcome of any procedure as a justification of that policy.

That said: the big question is whether federalism or democracy are procedural in the sense that a policy being the outcome of one of them justifies it. The case is strongest for democracy. On the other hand, it strikes me that federalism is, at best, only a good means of achieving certain ends. For some, it will be a good means in more cases than for others (example: those who think governmental goals should be tailored to the “flavor” of local communities (“pseudo-quasi-communitarians,” just to have a word for them) will probably accept federalism in a broader range of circumstances than those who, like libertarians, would prefer all governments to have the same set of goals), but it is always a (dispensable) means. (If a central authority could reliably identify goals tailored to different local communities, that would be acceptable to pseudo-quasi-communitarians.)

In the final analysis, then, I doubt (pace my earlier self and his interpretation of Rick Hill) that libertarians must be cynical towards federalism. Federalism strikes me as a doctrine that is always only justified on instrumental grounds. While libertarians might see it as more dispensable than others do, all adopt it only when it suits there purposes. This is strong evidence that valuing federalism for instrumental reasons is not the same as being cynical towards it. Still, it may well be that libertarians can only be cynical towards the American conception of federalism (a conception that has built into it the view that setting whether or not to set a certain set of goals really is best left up to the states). This, moreover, might be Rick Hill’s point. In which case it is well taken.


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