Steve Davies Is Education Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He has also worked for the Institute for Humane Studies in Virginia and has been a Visiting Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Centre at Bowling Green State University, OH. A historian, he is a graduate of St Andrews and taught for thirty years at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has been active in the libertarian movement since his time at St Andrews in the seventies when he was a part of the early years of the turn to free market policy with people such as Michael Forsyth, Eamonn Butler, and Madsen Pirie.
Keir Martland: Thank you, first of all, Dr Davies for taking part. Could you begin by explaining what libertarianism means to you? Most of the previous interviewees have been to some extent ‘rights-based libertarians’, how are you different?
Stephen Davies: Well I am definitely not a rights based libertarian. For me libertarianism is a political philosophy that tries to answer two related questions: how do people with incompatible notions of the good live together peaceably and what is the permissible extent if any of coercion in collective life (or human life in general) and answers these questions by saying that human life should to the greatest degree possible minimise the extent of coercion and maximise the extent of voluntary cooperation and agreement. That means it is not a comprehensive theory, it has no theory of ethics, or aesthetics or of the goal purpose and nature of human life. Above all it has no conception of the human good. It also means that you can arrive at this political position from a number of foundational positions and none of these has a particular superiority or precedence - that’s a meaningless question actually. So you can derive it from Lockean style natural rights, from J S Mill style rule utilitarianism, from virtue ethics, from scepticism, from Kantian voluntarism, from monotheistic religion, from several other starting points. Any of these is equally valid as a starting point which is why I find foundational arguments otiose and a waste of time. Finally it means that the one thing all libertarians agree on is that there should be as little institutionalised coercion as possible (maybe none) but can disagree about a lot of other things, so you can be a libertarian conservative, a libertarian liberal, or a libertarian egalitarian/socialist. I’m in the second category. I derive the position from a mixture of scepticism, indirect utilitarianism and virtue ethics.
I should add that in my view worked out political theories are not the product of truth-seeking in the strict sense. Rather they are rationalisations of deep seated sentiments or character traits that enable us to understand the world in a way that is comfortable for us. Of course facts may hit you in the face and lead you to change your mind or your character and instincts may change over time.
Keir Martland: So like David D. Friedman, you use the term ‘coercion’ or rather ‘minimal coercion’. But, if my watch has been stolen, surely I may coerce the thief in order to get it back? In this sense, would it not be better to differentiate between aggression and retaliation?
Stephen Davies: No I think the question is given that coercion is required and morally valid in such cases, how much of it should there be (i.e. how many kinds of event or action can be seen as justifying it) and how and by whom should it be exercised. There’s a respectable anarchist position that the answer is or should be none and nobody but I don’t think that is sustainable myself. One important point is that coercion is not exhausted by government. There is plenty of non-governmental coercion in human life. As I say the question is: how often is it justifiable and how should it be exercised? In other words: does the need for coercion in some instances justify or require government and if so how much and what form?
Of course you may argue that coercion should only be used in response to aggression but I’m leery of that argument, firstly because there are cases where it isn’t true (most obviously children) and secondly it’s much more tricky to define aggression than most people realise.
Keir Martland: Would you therefore say that you have no theory yourself of ‘just’ property rights? Since you only believe in coercion versus non-coercion, are you not conflating mere possession with actual just ownership? If so, what is your preferred - or most used - justification for the set of legal rules we call capitalism?
Stephen Davies: I don’t believe in ‘natural’ property rights (or any other kind of ‘natural rights’ come to that). I take the David Hume view that property rights are emergent social institutions that develop in particular times and places as a response to two features of the human condition - the scarcity of resources and the limitations of human benevolence. That means you have institutions and rulles in particular times and places that define what is just ownership, acquisition and transfer but these are basically socially emergent rules that exist to minimise conflict and encourage peaceful cooperation rather than conflict and predation.
As to ‘capitalism’, I increasingly think this is a concept that everyone should abandon as it’s a reified abstraction that once had a heuristic value but increasingly doesn’t. What you can advocate (as I do) on both utilitarian and more general human flourishing grounds is some form of market economy - a system of economic relations based on free production and exchange rather than predation - but this can have many forms and institutional instantiations. What we call capitalism is a particular kind of market economy that appeared in the early nineteenth century.
I would defend it on the two grounds I mentioned against most realistic alternatives but I am open to other ways of organising economic life within the broad class of market economies.
Keir Martland: What sort of utilitarianism do you practice? David Friedman, for instance, makes a fascinating use of it in ‘Machinery of Freedom’, yet later in the book, criticises ‘pure’ utilitarianism.
Stephen Davies: Basically the indirect ‘rule’ utilitarianism of J S Mil - this is what David (and virtually all other contemporary utilitarians, with Ray Frei the only exception) advocates. By pure utilitarianism he means ‘act utilitarianism’ of the Bentham variety, which nobody apart from Ray advocates.
What this means by the way is that I reject what you may call historical bases for libertarianism that see it as an organic outgrowth of a particular historical or national tradition. In particular I reject the notion that there is a British (or English) tradition of liberty that means you can advocate libertarian politics in the UK simply as a defence of an ‘old constitution’. I think that is simply historically incorrect for one thing - the old constitution of 18th century England was a confessional and authoritarian state that was dismantled by the liberal reformers of the 19th century - and is also wrong because for me the libertarian political position is one that can be arrived at by a number of routes, several of which are divorced from historical particularities and depend on more general arguments about things such as human nature or the nature of the world.
Keir Martland: You recently wrote an excellent blog entry on why the regulation of ‘payday’ lenders will hurt the poor. Could you explain why it is that any type of regulation like this is often likewise doomed?
Stephen Davies: It’s a question of trying to use coercion in a way that is both inappropriate (because it’s being used to stop voluntary actions that do not directly harm a third party) and self-defeating. The reason is that if there is a demand for this then the attempt to use force to prevent it will simply mean that the demand is met in ways that mean you will have all kinds of bad consequences, none of which are desired by the advocates of the policy. Basically this is the old argument that it is futile to promote virtue and discourage vice through the use of force.
Keir Martland: You published a book about 10 years ago called ‘Empiricism and History’. How important is empiricism for libertarians specifically? Some, me included, argue that empiricism is epistemology flawed and that rationalism justifies libertarianism whereas empiricism does not.
Stephen Davies: I don’t have a position on that. As I said I think foundational arguments are a waste of time. Some people combine libertarianism with empiricism as an epistemology others combine it with rationalism. Both are equally valid.
In other words it doesn’t matter what your reasons for holding the libertarian political position is. You may have a reason I think is pure bushtit such as that it’s mandated by the flying spaghetti monster but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the political position you have, that the role and scope of coercion should be limited.
That also means that in debates with other people it is a complete waste of time to use a foundational argument of the “You should not do x because it (e.g) violates natural rights” variety. That will only be persuasive if your interlocutor shares your underlying philosophy. If not, you’ve lost ‘em. What you have to do is show that the policy or act in question is incompatible with their underlying philosophy or goal. So for example if they advocate something based on a care ethics position then you need to show that what they advocate is bad from a care ethics perspective. That’s the only way you’ll persuade most people.
Keir Martland: How optimistic are you about the next, say, 5 or 10 years, and what needs to be done to allow real incomes to rise again? What was the problem that caused the ‘Great Recession’ in the first place?
Stephen Davies: I’m not optimistic I’m afraid. I think that the key to understanding where we are is that most of the growth of the last ten years (maybe longer) was illusory and fluff and that people expected much higher levels of growth i9n the future than is actually going to happen. When it became obvious that the anticipated growth wasn’t coming a whole lot of investments, that had been made on the basis of artificially cheap money and overoptimistic predictions, were shown to be unsound. They have to be liquidated one way or another before we can move forward but the entire goal of policy for the last five years has been to prevent this, to hold up asset values. It’s to protect the interests of the rich and powerful - socialism for the rich. The result is stagnation - the developed world is all like Japan now. The deeper problem is that we are all of us facing a Malthusian crunch. The question is will we innovate enough to outrun it? I think we will but it will be tough until that happens.
Keir Martland: Have you ever affiliated with any political party and do you plan to? Are political parties inevitably statist?
Stephen Davies: I was a member of the student Conservative Association while I was at St Andrews. I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of conservative however, I have always regarded myself as a radical liberal. Since then I have never joined a political party and have no intention of doing that. I think a political party as conventionally understood is statist inasmuch as it’s all about working within the political system. Nothing wrong with that if it’s what lights your candle - I don’t go along with the idea that people are corrupted and become less pure if they become involved in politics because compromise and bargaining is what politics is about in essence - it’s all about resolving differences without coming to blows but within a structure of coercive relations. It does look as though the mass political party has had its day but I actually think that is regrettable if the alternative is managerial rule. The challenge is to find some other form of political collective action that isn’t conventional politics oriented. I think the history of the labour movement and things such as the CNT/FAI as well as classical liberal examples such as the Anti Corn Law League and the anti-slavery movement have something to teach us here.
Keir Martland: Here’s a fun question: you’re now the libertarian dictator (or is that an oxymoron?). What laws or directives would you immediately pass?
Stephen Davies: I would immediately stop the war on drugs. Lots of other things you could do but in terms of immediate improvement in well being that would be top of the list.
Keir Martland: If you had one month to ‘convert’ someone to libertarianism, how would you do it?
Stephen Davies: I would find out what their ultimate values were, how they understood the world and what they thought human life should be like. I would then try to show them that a free world with minimal coercion was the best way of realising that and that it was compatible with their fundamental values. This does mean that some people are unconvertible. If you think that ‘might is right’ or you are a Carl Schmitt type then there is no way you will be persuaded because your fundamental values and vision of life are intrinsically opposed to the idea of minimising coercion. In practical terms for many people a trip to Cuba followed by one to Hong Kong would probably do the trick. The key thing is to persuade them that 1. There doesn’t have to be a boss and 2. You and (most importantly) other people can decide what to do in their lives and 3. This will be good in terms of their values.
Keir Martland: Thank you, Dr Davies, for your answers and I will recommend that all readers take a look at the two Institutes mentioned above.
Stephen Davies: It was a pleasure.