The Shining Pony City on the Hill

— Since I consider non-utopian libertarian-ish political theory my niche in the world, I figure I should mention the hoopla over the Epstein, Friedman, Barnett (and Pinkerton arguing about something else) debate. Belle Waring is all “pony pony pony!” Sasha defends ideal theory, but falls short of defending ponies. I want to comment on this proposition about ideal theory:

Ideal theory is useful because it helps us to guide reform. You need to know where you’re trying to go in order to know whether the next step is in the right direction.

Comment: Quite true! However, the point I insist on emphasizing is: There is no way to pick out the ideal (call it “the target”) in abstraction from the status quo. Two reasons, descriptive and normative. Descriptive: if the putative target really is the target, then you can get there from here. Ideal theorizing is utopian in the pejorative sense (rather than utopian in Rawls’s sense of “realistic utopianism” — although he ends up utopian in the pejorative sense despite himself) when it just picks a target out of the air without paying any attention to whether there is any mechanism of social change that could plausibly cause us to arrive there. Normative: and the target is a pony (is pejoratively utopian) unless it is possible to get there from here in a way consistent with the values that led us to pick THAT target to begin with. If hitting the target is possible, but requires a vast system of re-education camps, killing half the population, or what have you, then it’s not really the target, assuming a liberal target. So while ideal theory is just fine, the problem with the Epstein, et al. debate is that it’s not clear they meet either the descriptive or normative conditions for acceptable ideal theorizing. I think they’re ponytalking! It’s not enough to be told that a society with such and such attributes is not an empirical impossibility and that if it were realized, it would be a morally good thing. We also need to be told that getting there from here is not an empirical impossibility, and that if it is possible, that the route is morally acceptable.

Comment on the Comment: OK! But then look. Initial conditions plus mechanisms of social change, plus normative constraints pare down the space of acceptable targets. But within THAT space, how can you know which of the possible targets to pick other than by comparing it to, you know, a REAL full blooded ideal, a shining city on the hill. You pick the one within the domain of acceptability that matches most closely the sweetest dreams of philosophers, no?

Comment on Comment on Comment: No! Don’t want to kick a dead pony, but we have to have some independent reason to believe that the shining city of ponies REALLY would be worth having, and that short of having it, we’ll have to settle for some pale, less shining imitation. The shining city of ponies can only have a normative gravitational tug if it really is what we should be aiming at. But what I’m saying is that there is no knowing what we should be aiming at independent of the constraints we actually face. So we pick our target by browsing through the set of feasible alternatives, and then just pick the one that best satisfies our normative desiderata. You don’t design a house by drawing a blueprint of the bestest mansion ever, and then pare it down until it fits the budget. That’s insane!

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center