Sunday, October 07, 2012

Reclaiming Libertarianism, Part 1: What libertarianism is, and isn't

Here are three questions.  They are not rhetorical.

1.      Who owns you?
2.      Whom do you own?
3.      When is it proper to use or threaten violence against someone?

Libertarianism has specific answers to all three:

1.      No one.
2.      No one (or yourself).
3.      Only to defend against someone else’s initiation of force.

Libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds that individual liberty is the highest political value, and that the protection of individual rights is the only proper use of force, the only proper end of government.  And by individual rights, we mean the fundamental right of self-ownership and additionally the corollaries of individual self control and choice, and the consequences thereof, including the right to one’s property as well as responsibility for one's acts.  In the view, the relations among people that we call “society” are voluntary and mutually beneficial; society is a “positive sum game.”  We come together because we all benefit. 

For most libertarians these benefits are not primarily material, but first of all moral, spiritual, or psychic, they are matters of human dignity and human flourishing.  After all, each individual human being is an autonomous agent.  We each have control of ourselves by nature.  Being forced into a political relation where one is controlled by another against one’s will is an unhappy state of affairs; it’s oppressing, it can crush the spirit.  Conversely, being free to pursue what one thinks best is the only system compatible with our natures.  Even should one choose to follow a leader, there’s all the world of difference between this and being compelled to do so.  Additionally, a society of freedom also provides superior material benefits, as free exchanges in the market lead to specialization, entrepreneurship, and innovation.  Hence, for libertarianism, freedom is both a moral principle and a pragmatic one.

The prerequisite for this “positive sum game” is respect for individual rights.  If individual rights are not respected, then social relations begin to include the sacrificing of some for others’ benefit.  And if we begin institutionalizing this, we set up a zero sum game of winners and losers, a world of dog eat dog, might makes right, a world of rent-seeking and perpetual war for advantage.  In fact, justice is the respect for and defense of these individual rights.  Injustice is the violation of them.

Individual rights, in this view, are the bedrock of civilization.  And libertarianism is the political ethic of rights, informed by reason.

There’s another important way of looking at individual rights: they are restrictions on our behavior.  They tell us what we may not do.  We may not violate others’ self-ownership.  We may not use force, fraud, and deception to gain for ourselves at their expense.  And if we ignore others’ rights we can be justly met with force to make us stop.

What’s the underlying origin or nature of these rights?  Libertarians have given multiple answers, including natural rights theory, utilitarianism, theological origins, and perhaps others.  As Tom Palmer puts it (in his Realizing Freedom), what these arguments have in common is that rights are imprescriptable, that is, rights aren’t doled out by political authorities, the set of rights is not arbitrary or ad hoc, and they can’t be violated without injustice, without invoking dog-eat-dog principle.

Most of this is likely obvious to libertarians.  But there are some important implications that are sometimes missed, and that’s when libertarians can start to go off the rails.  So let’s look at a few of these.

1.      Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not an all encompassing worldview.  Sometimes libertarians act as though libertarianism is a complete theory of everything.  It isn’t.  If two people agree on what rights are and that respecting and protecting them is the paramount political concern, they are both libertarians, yet they might differ on fundamental philosophical issues, as well as everything else imaginable.

One can arrive at libertarianism from a wide variety of philosophical starting points.  Those I’ve encountered include (but are hardly limited to) Objectivism, Aristotelianism, Kantianism, deism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, utilitarianism, pragmatism.  John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman – all were libertarians, as defined here.  Yet they did not generally share the same, or even similar, basic philosophies.  I’m met Christians who derived their libertarianism from the Bible and Muslims who derived theirs from the Koran.  All agree on what are individual rights, and all agree that preserving them is the fundamental political goal.  Despite deep philosophical differences on other matters, all are libertarians.

Corollary: There’s no such thing as “the libertarian position” on ontology/metaphysics or epistemology.  Ontology and epistemology are important, but separate from political philosophy.  Libertarians who argue that their own particular positions on these are the authentic libertarian doctrine (as did Rand, and as do some natural rights libertarians) are simply wrong.  If one insists on respect for individual rights, one is a libertarian.

Libertarianism is also not a complete ethical system.  It is not supposed to be.  It doesn’t tell one whether or not one should or shouldn’t work hard, give to the poor, drink moderately, swear, believe in God, treat friends and neighbors politely, nor does it say anything on the many, many other questions of ethics that don’t involve questions of utilizing force, except that these are not matters for the police.  This is not the same, as some dishonest conservatives (e.g. Russell Kirk) have claimed, as libertarianism being immoral.  It is simply that libertarianism holds that morality isn’t to be enforced at gunpoint.

Similarly, there are numerous dimensions of knowledge apart from libertarianism, since they are not part of political philosophy.  For example, there’s no such thing as the libertarian version of history.  Some libertarians imagine that their own personal views on, say, Lincoln and the Civil War, or the founding of Israel, are a part of libertarian doctrine.  But they are not.  Neither are positions on other subjects, such as climate change, or mental illness and psychotherapy.  Often libertarians who hold strong positions on these subjects seem to think their views are the libertarian doctrines.  But they are not.  Libertarianism is political philosophy, not an account of history, nor a theory of geophysics, nor of medicine.  There’s no libertarian position on evolution.  There’s no such thing as “libertarian physics,” “libertarian chemistry,” “libertarian mathematics,” “libertarian mechanical engineering,” “libertarian theory of football strategy,” “libertarian diet,” etc.  Most emphatically, there’s no such thing as “libertarian economics,” and anyone who supposes there is understands neither libertarianism nor economics.

I will address “libertarian history” further in a future post, because of its prominence in some very embarrassing (and sometimes malicious) confusions from which libertarianism needs to be divorced.  I will also post something on libertarianism and science, perhaps with special reference to climate change.

2.      Libertarianism is not “hating the state;” it is respecting and defending rights.  Listen to enough libertarians, and you’re bound to come across some who are so vituperative when it comes to “the state,” and so cavalier when it comes to the rights of individuals, that for them the fundamental defining criterion of libertarian is opposition to the state, whether they are fully conscious of this or not.

Now there are often good reasons to hate the state.  But from a libertarian standpoint, this can only be when the state violates rights – a common occurrence, but not a universal one.  What if “the state” actually defends individual rights in some instance – as it often does?  I’m using quotation marks around “the state” because of the tendency in this line of thinking to personify the state, to treat it as the seat of all social evils, and to attribute to it a singular purpose – an evil one, of course.  This is a strawman state, and the arguments that presume such a “state” tend to have little to offer in terms of how to preserve and expand liberty.

The reality of the state is that it consists of people of varying objectives and knowledge organized under a set of institutions, and hence is every bit as complex as other social phenomena.  What is different about the state is the near monopoly it holds over force.  Since the fundamental tool of the state is force, libertarianism holds that it needs to be strictly constrained to defensive activities – defending individual rights from force and fraud.  It also must be minimal, as small as possible. 

Libertarians can disagree on how small this is.  If the state can be reduced to zero, and rights preserved, then this would be the preferred alternative under the libertarian criterion.  Anarcho-capitalists believe such a system is feasible.  Perhaps it is.  On the other hand, suppose that abolishing the state leads almost surely to a power vacuum, followed by conflict among the most ruthless, from which a tyranny is likely to emerge; in that case a minimal state that prevents this would be the preferred libertarian alternative.  A libertarian might believe in one or the other (anarchism or minarchism); neither is the libertarian position.  (In my view, neither of these choices as commonly conceived by libertarians is a very good alternative, perhaps the subject of a future post.)

There can also be considerable dispute among libertarians on how force should be employed to defend rights.  Is any particular application of force justified?  What is and what isn’t defensive?

This is often a much more difficult matter than it might seem.  Going from the libertarian ethic to application in the real world can be very, very complex.  What are the legitimate rights in any particular case?  Furthermore, what are the facts?  Who really is the aggressor, and who the defender?  Can force be justly employed in a pre-emptive fashion?  If so, what standard must met to justify pre-emptive force?  How much force?  What about side effects?  These sorts of questions arise particularly in the cases of foreign policy (broadly defined to include relations in an anarcho-capitalist world) and war.

I will feature at least one post each on foreign policy and war – I particularly want to address some of the nonsense written by libertarians on these subjects, because it is so rarely examined critically from a libertarian standpoint.

There it is – a short, careful description of what libertarianism is, and isn’t.  There’s also your playbook for my coming posts for “Reclaiming Libertarianism” month.

As always, comments welcome.  And don’t forget, for this month, also welcome are on-topic guest posts from all comers.  

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