Libertarianism

Greetings

I wasn’t initially worried that this blog was launching while I was on a road trip; after all, surely a new political philosophy blog would take some time to warm up.  Whoops; a few links from the Cowens, Sullivans, and Wilkinsons of the world and suddenly the pressure is on to get the content flowing!

Thanks to Matt for inviting me in.  This is my third attempt   at academic group-blogging, interrupted by various breaks from blogging altogether and by posts at my own blog.    Open University ultimately failed– too many contributors created a collective-action problem for posting, and the contributors didn’t have enough in common to generate a group voice.  The Volokh Conspiracy is of course still going strong, and has never had a problem getting enough content; indeed, part of why I drifted away was because its pace seemed to demand more full-time blogging than I wanted to be engaged in.

The group voice is quickly emerging here, and if I want to help shape it I need to start having something to say!  My posts won’t be much like some of what’s been here so far.  I’m not a philosopher, and am not quite at home thinking about questions at the level of abstraction “is libertarianism compatible with a commitment to social justice?”  I’m comfortable using “libertarian” as a broad umbrella word, like we use the party-idea words “liberal,” “conservative,” and “socialist,” rather than as the name of a particular philosophical position.  And I lack the conviction, common to Rawls, Nozick, and Rothbard, that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions” and that the way to proceed in thinking about what ought to be done in our political life is primarily in terms of first principles about rights or justice.

The closest I’ve come to working out a full theory about this kind of thing happens in this article on largely unrelated questions:

I propose to treat the state as a morally contingent form of social organization that is nonetheless pervasive in the world we inhabit and in any world we can reasonably imagine in the medium-term future.

If we do so, one consequence is that we should view state officials as wielding a great deal of power in our social world that is probably not justified all the way down. States did not come about by individualist contractualist consent; they are not the institutional form of morally foundational nations; religious, hereditary, and customary forms of legitimation may remain sociologically credible in some places but are surely not morally well-grounded accounts of the justifications for the organized use of violence. Yet states are such well-entrenched features of the political landscape that, if can constrains ought at all, we are probably not morally obligated to abolish the state form in favor of some other form of political organization or in favor of anarchy of any description. We must morally make the best of them, making do with what we have.

In a world filled with states, officeholders and officials should view themselves as having political responsibility as analyzed by Weber, which is much like [David] Miller’s remedial responsibility. They wield power that is not morally legitimated by its origins; the power exists because of morally neutral historical and social accidents. What remains is moral responsibility for what is done with the power.

State officials then confront a world in which their authority gives them unusual power over outcomes. In a world full of drowning children, they are unusually likely to have access to life preservers. As Miller stresses, it is important not to view the world as always only made up of drowning children; we must also be able to see ourselves as partly responsible for the creation of our circumstances, our social worlds, and our outcomes. But even with that caveat in mind, there are drowning children enough to go around. Miller draws on Virginia Held’s (1970) famous argument that a random collection of individuals can be held morally responsible, to suggest that if they can, surely more substantial collectives like nations can be. But Held’s “random collection” shouldn’t be passed by so quickly; it is a serviceable shorthand for the reality of fellow-citizenship in a modern state, who make up a random collection of individuals who happen to be socially organized in a particular, contingent but powerful, way.

The state’s first duty, the prevention of interpersonal violence, follows more or less straightforwardly from the kind of social organization that the state is: the agency that is able to claim and enforce a local monopoly on the legitimate initiation of force. Not all forms of political organization have been like that, and the responsibilities of officeholders under them differed accordingly. But the ability to prevent private violence is constitutive of the modern state, which just for that reason acquires a responsibility to do so in accordance with the background moral rights of persons to be free from violence. Similarly, it acquires a responsibility to protect against theft and against aggression from outside its boundaries. It has displaced all other possible protectors; it has both the greatest ability and (due to its own actions) the only ability to defend against force; and so it bears the responsibility to do so.

Orthodox libertarianism would hold that this first responsibility (understood to include the prevention of private theft, not only personal violence) also more or less exhausts the state’s responsibilities. But the creation of the social technology that can protect against internal and external violence—for example, the creation of a professional body of armed men trained for coordinated action and a financial apparatus that can support that body—means that there is a significant concentration of physical and fiscal power on hand. And there may well be an overprovision of that power, since an underprovision is irresponsible and generates political pressure for state actors to fulfill their duties, and “just right” provision at the level that would keep police and armed forces working at precisely their whole capacity would be an astronomically unlikely coincidence. Then, unavoidably, the slack in the system provides the state and state actors with situations in which they have a unique capacity to prevent or mitigate harms and suffering. The police force created to prevent crimes also has the ability to respond to car crashes. The public fisc created to fund an army also has the ability to feed the starving. I am sure that there is no morally decent way to insist that the police officer refuse in principle to aid people in danger even if the danger wasn’t caused by crime, even though that means that the taxpayers will be involuntarily funding some use of the officer’s time that is not connected to rights-protection, even if the resulting situation is a violation of the best understanding of taxpayers’ property rights. Nor will it just be a matter of the personal benevolence of the police officer who wants to be free to prevent non-criminal harms while on the clock. If capacity and proximity can generate outcome-responsibility, then it can be the officer’s responsibility to act—and, accordingly, the responsibility of the state of which the officer is an agent.

Once the public fisc can prevent non-criminal harms indirectly, by paying its personnel to do so, it is a difficult distinction to maintain that it may not prevent them directly, by, e.g., feeding the hungry. Indeed, the distinction is probably an impossible one, and so all non-autocracies will end by being in the business of distribution (Dahl 1993). Once states are distributing benefits—and even physical protection is a benefit about which distributive decisions are made, as is perfectly evident when looking at the geographic unevenness of police protection in all countries—they face moral constraints about how and to whom they should be distributed. That is, there are problems of political redistributive justice, even if redistribution is not in itself demanded by justice.

I do not suppose that these brief remarks will persuade my fellow libertarians that they ought to abandon their views on redistributive spending. But perhaps they will agree that the police officer on duty has a responsibility (and not just the responsibility borne by any natural person) to aid the drowning child, even though doing so is a drain on taxpayer resources that is not for the sake of the prevention of interpersonal rights-violations, even though doing so provides a kind of subsidized in-kind insurance against misfortunes that are not injustices. The subsidy is not itself a demand of libertarian justice but of public responsibility conditional on the fact of public power; but once the subsidy exists, it is constrained by concerns about justice. A state could not justifiably intentionally deploy police differentially according to the race of the children likely to be at risk of drowning.

That’s much less than a complete argument.  But it gives a sense of what differentiates me from a justice-theorist properly understood.  On the one hand, I think that the modern state, with its taxing apparatus and warmaking power and all the rest, is a fixed feature of the social landscape for the medium-term future.  And so I no longer find much interest in one kind of libertarian philosophical question: whether state taxation violates rights (and therefore justice).  Insofar as ought implies can, and justice is aimed at plausible states of social ordering and peaceful coexistence for beings like us in our circumstances (here, see my review of G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality; I’ll be developing the ideas in that review at further length on the blog, I hope),  the question Nozick starts with– whether and how the state can justly exist given the priority of rights– now seems backwards to me.  Most  libertarians are willing to treat economic  facts as fixed, rigid constraints on plausible normative ideas; if you neglect incentives, or wish for a world in which supply and demand work differently, or imagine away the limited-altruism that Hume and Rawls treat as one of the circumstances of justice, then libertarians will rightly reprimand you for imagining rights and justice in a way that is irrelevant to us humans.  But many libertarians are utterly unwilling to treat politics as having facts that constrain our theorizing in the same way.  They have a surprisingly idealistic vision of politics: we could just decide to do the right thing.  I don’t think we could just decide to abolish war or the state or taxation any more than we could decide to abolish downward-sloping demand curves.  Maybe things will change someday; they have before.  But my interest is in figuring out the right thing to do now, in our circumstances, for people like us.

On the other hand, my defense of redistribution in the passage above doesn’t refer to social justice or to the rights of the beneficiaries.  It is based in need and suffering, not rights (and therefore, to the minds of many social justice theorists, insufficiently concerned with either equality or dignity).  Some think about redistribution in this way: I have a right to basic material sustenance, though it is imperfect because no particular person or agent has a duty to provide me with it.  My view is something of the reverse.  States aren’t just moral agents; they’re particular kinds of institutions that generate particular kinds of duties and responsibilities.  (That’s part of what an institution is: a source of distinctive, particular duties and role-responsibilities for those who make it up, not grounded directly in first moral principles.)  And the fully-developed modern state has duties of aid and assistance and the relief of suffering, even though there are not correlative free-standing rights to material support.

In philosophical terms, this makes me a pluralist (like Miller, Walzer, and Schmidtz) about justice: need and suffering are one source of moral claim, and those moral claims aren’t directly translated into the common currency of rights.  But it also makes me a decidedly non-ideal theorist; I’m not talking at the level of principle common to ideal theorists, whether Rawlsian or Nozickean or Rothbardian.

I see libertarianism– or market liberalism– as a position within the political world of the modern state, a party-idea about how the policies of the modern state should be shaped.  I don’t see it as above or outside that political world– as a theory about what justice would loook like in the state of nature, or as a theory that on its own terms demands to be constitutionalized and made immune to further political contestation. It’s my position; I endorse it, I think it’s right, I wish modern states pursued far more libertarian policies than they do.  But it’s a position within politics, and one set of questions to ask about it is always how it works in politics.  One reason, as far as I’m concerned, to make a big deal out of being a liberaltarian is provided by the well-known fact that incumbent businesses and the incumbent wealthy use market-friendly rhetoric to disguise rent-seeking, power-entrenching, state-dependent behavior.  It’s important, but wildly insufficient, to insist over and over again on the No True Scotsman defense: when a problem arises in the world, we say “ah, but that’s not a real market, and the businesses using our ideas as cover can’t be held against us.”  The longstanding libertarian alliance with the right has made it far too easy to conflate market freedom with the interests of incumbent firms, far too easy to fail to notice state action when it aids established business (until it goes wrong somehow, at which point the No True Scotsman defense comes out).  Even if we don’t use the language of social justice, I think that reemphasizing libertarianism as a species of liberalism, and reemphasizing its progressive moral concerns, is a desirable response to the life libertarian ideas have had in politics over the last several decades.

I will defer until other days my other reasons for wanting to emphasize liberaltarianism: the importance of cultural issues, of immigration, of a non-nationalist moral outlook– and the great importance, in America in particular, of sharply distinguishing the cause of freedom from the cause of slavery which is happy to claim its name.  The interpretation of American history that says “we were free until 1937”– an interpretation in which the restriction on Filburn’s wheat production is slavery but actual chattel slavery and the tyranny of Jim Crow are asterisks– doesn’t depend on a subtle philosophical claim about the nature of rights, and liberaltarians’ rejection of it doesn’t depend on subtle philosophical claims about social justice.  But I think that divide has been very important to the emergence of a liberaltarian idea as a stance within American politics.

A final note: I’ll save B-HL (hyphenated, to distinguish us from that other BHL in France) posts for serious on-topic business, at least until we see how this site evolves.  Coffee-blogging, geekstuff-blogging, and even a substantial share of my political theory blogging– e.g. about multiculturalism, ethnic politics, and federalism—   will remain chez moi.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    “The interpretation of American history that says “we were free until 1937″– an interpretation in which the restriction on Filburn’s wheat production is slavery but actual chattel slavery and the tyranny of Jim Crow are asterisks– doesn’t depend on a subtle philosophical claim about the nature of rights, and liberaltarians’ rejection of it doesn’t depend on subtle philosophical claims about social justice.”

    Jacob, I know the sort of libertarian you’re referring to here, but obviously many libertarians don’t fit that mold, and you don’t have to be a liberaltarian to reject it. You can also be a libertarian who strives for consistency, rejects chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws _and also_ the New Deal. It’s not either-or.

  • I’m glad to see you here, Jacob. For those who haven’t read the whole thing, let me highly recommend the article Jacob links/excerpts. I have various disagreements with it (some fairly minor, some more important) but it’s really very good, useful, and readable.

  • A. Young Libertarian

    I second professor Skoble’s sentiments. Many of us ‘young libertarians’ recognize that this view (and its penchant for drifting so easily to Conservatism) is flawed. Instead, many of us are turning our eyes toward the future: where radical decentralization, economic freedom and social tolerance can be won outside the history books. Libertarianism as progress, forward-thinking, and social justice — as the proper philosophy for the 21st century world — rejects Jim Crow, slavery and New Deal corporatism.

  • Aeon, I certainly don’t mean to say “one must be a liberaltarian in order to see that slavery was an infringement of freedom” or even “in order to see that slavery was more important than the New Deal.”

    But the idea I referred to in the paragraph above– that we need to be alert to the political lives led by ideas– is relevant here. The Confederatista strain is important enough and prominent enough in American libertarianism that I think it’s worthwhile to develop a way of talking about libertarianism that specially emphasizes the rejection of that view. The idea of a fusion with conservatives, and that in America freedom is the natural old condition which must be *conserved,* is relevant context here, and “liberaltarian” emphasizes a break with conservatism. The American conservative movement with which postwar libertarianism was ostensibly fused was entangled with the defense of Jim Crow; and Rothbard supported Thurmond for President, describing the civil rights movement of the 40s (which was a long time before the 64 act regulated private discrimination) as “Civil Tyranny.” I think all of that still matters for libertarianism as an idea in politics. For me, that’s part of the appeal of explicitly trying to talk about libertarianism as liberal rather than conservative. As Hayek said, our understandings of history shape a great deal of what we think about politics now– and I understand American history to have been deeply about slavery and Jim Crow, in ways that shape my understanding of politics now.

    For what it’s worth, in addition to being a libertarian I’m also a federalist (not inherently connected), and I think all of this is also true of federalism in American politics. Its entanglements with apartheid are deep, and can’t be treated as “obviously except that” kind of qualifiers to a generally federalist theory.

    Matt: Thanks!

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Point taken. I should say that I also see libertarianism as a species of liberalism philosophically. The connections to American conservatism are contingent historical ties more than conceptual ones – since American “liberals” were the ones to start going statist, libertarians may have had occasion to make common cause with them, but it always seemed to me that libertarianism was a distinct third thing, not really what Americans call “liberal” or “conservative.” But as to the distinction you illustrate – the reason I am inclined to say “of course slavery was bad” is not to minimize it, but because you don’t even have to be a libertarian to see its wrongness. So, slavery is bad. Why? Because freedom is good. But if freedom is good, the government ought not to praise freedom while undermining it. That means that we oppose slavery _and also_ the idea that the state can set wage and price controls.

  • “That means that we oppose slavery _and also_ the idea that the state can set wage and price controls.”

    This sort of captures in a nutshell one of the big problems with right-libertarianism as practiced – the inability to make a clear distinction between, for example, chattel slavery and minimum wage laws.

    The minimum wage can be good or bad for human welfare, but any class of ideas that contains both the minimum wage and chattel slavery is a class so broad as to be basically useless.

  • I have a comment on the use of the term ‘ideal theory,’ especially in connection with Rawlsian political philosophy. My apologies if it is somewhat tangential to the main points of your post.

    One way to understand ‘ideal theory’ is in terms of ‘state of nature’ scenarios. According to this way of understanding ideal theory, some version of the following question is asked: what kind of state (or what political principles of justice that can justify a state), if any, would free, equal, and rational persons in a pre-social (or extra-social) condition find acceptable (or, more strongly, be compelled rationally to endorse)? This is the kind of ‘ideal theory,’ I think, that is employed by Nozick (although I don’t recall him using precisely that term).

    This is not the kind of ‘ideal theory’ that is employed by Rawls (or so I would contend). Indeed, I think that Rawls would gladly accept much of what you have to say about the situation in which we now find ourselves: states exist, and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future; consequently, the question is what can be done to render the coercive power exercised by states as morally acceptable (as politically legitimate and as just) as possible? That is, Rawlsian political philosophy assumes that we have an ongoing set of ‘practices’ constitutive of our shared political life, and asks: (a) what is the purpose (or what are the purposes) of these practices; and (b) what should be done in order to realize better the purpose(s) of those practices (i.e., given what our practices are trying to accomplish, how might they be revised in order to do so better)?

    Thus I think that Rawlsian political philosophy needs to be understood as fundamentally ‘practice-dependent’ in nature. It takes our existing practices as given (very roughly, forms of social cooperation organized and regulated coercively by states). Moreover, drawing on his interpretation of the public political culture of democratic society, Rawls claims that the purpose of the practices constitutive of our shared political life is fair social cooperation in the creation and distribution of primary good (liberties, opportunities, income, etc.). Fair social cooperation, in turn, is the kind of cooperation that can satisfy what Rawls calls ‘the criterion of reciprocity.’

    The function of the ‘original position’ device is to clarify what the criterion of reciprocity requires of our present political practices (i.e., help identify precisely what fair terms of social cooperation, what principles of justice, are most justified). And the function of Rawlsian ‘ideal theory’ (its assumptions of ‘full compliance,’ ‘reasonably favourable circumstances,’ and society as a ‘closed’ system of social cooperation over time) is meant to clarify what a society that fully realized those principles would look like. Such a ‘well-ordered society’ is a ‘realistic utopia’ – but one that is constructed rationally out of our current practices.

    So, I would suggest that the starting point for Rawls’s political philosophy is much closer to that of Miller and Walzer than many people seem to think. (In contrast to Walzer, though, Rawls is not satisfied simply to ‘interpret’ our existing practices; he thinks that we can do more than that.) Thus I think it is a mistake to understand Rawlsian ideal theory as akin to Nozickian ideal theory.

    (This does not bear on your other differences with Rawls’s political philosophy, of course.)

  • So, just to take one example out of hundreds of thousands for starters, Jacob, do you want the government to keep funding Planned Parenthood (with money from taxpayers, needless to say)? And — this being a far less important question, mind you — should we shun people whose answer is “no”?

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