Libertarianism And Consequences: A Potential Empirical Boost

One of the biggest debates among libertarians revolves around the justification of our ethical views. The two most important strands in it are deontological libertarianism and consequentialism, respectively. The adherents of the former view believe that the primacy of individual liberty is best justified with reference to the good consequences the institutions based on libertarian principles tend to create — sometimes with the implication that the jury really is out to which extent libertarianism is actually sound. On the other hand, deontologists claim that, regardless of the consequences, social institutions must be based on the respect for persons and their property, and if this arrangement fails to conform to some consequentialist ideal, so be it.

I belong to the minority of libertarians who believe that both of those approaches are inadequate. As Roderick Long noted in this brilliant and under-appreciated essay, Aristotelian unity of virtue approach persuasively suggests that there seems to be a deep connection between justice and good consequences, that you cannot have one without the other and vice versa. Hence, the potential conflict between the two might not really be there.

But there still remains a problem that even Roderick Long acknowledges. The respect of persons and economic growth are, as he said, only starting points in the necessary reflective equilibrium exercise. The reflective equilibrium approach here is needed because it is not possible to define justice without reference to consequences but nor is it possible to decide which consequences are to be considered good without partly defining them through justice.

The million-dollar question we are facing that Long does not do enough justice, in my view, is how close to the true content of justice and good consequences the relevant starting points in the mutual adjustment are, and it is best illustrated by the issue of air pollution.

It is widely believed that air pollution causes a lot of damage to persons, especially through causing lung-disease-related deaths. If we follow the justice-based logic straight, pollution of this kind must be banned because the victims of such pollution do not consent to it. It is not particularly convincing to respond that most of them engage in similar activities and thus somehow forgo their rights.

Of course, one can invoke the proportionality principle and say that even though air pollution causes damage, it would be grossly disproportionate to, for instance, prohibit people from driving by force because the individual contribution of each particular driver to the pollution-caused damage is close to zero. However, there is something about this solution that seems unsatisfactory. As Matt Zwollinski notes in his treatment of the topic, would we employ similar reasoning against a multitude of people who were each putting a microscopic dose to poison someone?

On the consequences side, on the other hand, it is clear that air-polluting activities prima facie cause much more good than harm. Even if we just reduce pollution through curbing driving, except for food-distribution and other basic or emergency-response needs, this might actually paradoxically lead to more pollution overall. If people stopped driving and had to walk or ride bicycles, they might even consume more food, whose production may require more pollution than driving. And if they got back to using horses en masse… I guess I do not need to continue. Finally, if we seriously curbed the air-polluting industrial and agricultural activities, that would impoverish billions and cause vastly more death and suffering than air pollution can.

It appears then that it is very hard for libertarians from whatever camp to square libertarianism with pollution but recent ground-breaking toxicological research may provide an unexpected way out of the argumentative woods.

S. Stanley Young et al. conducted a cutting-edge empirical study of the causal connection between the concentration of the two most important air pollutants, PM2.5 and ozone and the death rate in California between 2000 and 2012. Here is what they found:

Here we make publically available a dataset containing daily air quality levels, PM2.5 and ozone, daily temperature levels, minimum and maximum and daily maximum relative humidity levels for the eight most populous California air basins, thirteen years, >2M deaths, over 37,000 exposure days. The data are analyzed using standard time series analysis, and a sensitivity analysis is computed varying model parameters, locations and years. Our analysis finds little evidence for association between air quality and acute deaths. These results are consistent with those for the widely cited NMMAPS dataset when the latter are restricted to California. The daily death variability was mostly explained by time of year or weather variables; Neither PM2.5 nor ozone added appreciably to the prediction of daily deaths. These results call into question the widespread belief that association between air quality and acute deaths is causal/near-universal.

If their result holds, it will mean strongly suggest that libertarian Aristotelianism has it right. There is no apparent major conflict between ethics and consequences because both ethical principles and consequence are objectively part of this world, and are inherently connected. Hence, the Aristotelian part. And fortunately for libertarians, libertarianism may have passed a major, tough empirical consequences test with near flying colors.

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