Libertarianism

Libertarianism: Political or Moral?

A possibly obvious point.  Libertarianism is a doctrine about the limits of state power.  It is not a doctrine about individual excellence or individual morality.  In particular, libertarianism does not hold that self-regarding behavior (behavior that doesn’t harm others) is morally permissible.  It just says that the state cannot criminalize it.  For example, I may insist that the state should not criminalize prostitution while believing prostitution immoral. (Same with aestethic values: I think I have reasons to support the claim that the music of Mozart is objectively better than the music of Lady Gaga, yet I would join Lady Gaga’s fans in opposing the state’s attempt to impose Mozart.)

Yet, as Jacob’s post suggests, libertarians share with progressives core beliefs that go beyond limiting the role of the state.  Yet, are really libertarians and progressives essentially in agreement about virtually everything, except the role of the state? I am not so sure.

  • John V

    Agreement on everything (except the role of the state) is a foggy way of putting it…though true in a broad sense.

    But I think the “role of the state” issue has two prongs as to why there is a difference of opinion.

    1. Philosophy. SHOULD the state do XYZ or not? Is there something inherently wrong with the state handling such and such a task?

    2. Utilitarian angle. CAN the state really accomplish XYZ in the way that is hoped for? Are we just begging for disappointment and more problems if the state handles such and such a task? Is the state causing more collateral damage than any narrow problem it’s trying to fix? Is the probable result better than the alternative of a more privatized solution even though that privatized solution is not quite to the liking of some?

    Of course, I think the two are related. An opinion on the general idea of “2” can influence views on “1”….at least from a libertarian standpoint.

    Having made the transition myself to libertarianism by way of the center left, I found “2” to be the one that really changed my views. I also believe it’s the more practical way of discussing issues between libertarians and modern liberals because a desire for change for the betterment of all is at the core of both. Yes, I know some modern liberals may scoff at that but it’s the truth. I think the idea of the uncaring libertarian is a perception problem more than a real one because modern liberals may view libertarian language through the prism of their values and sensibilities instead of empathizing with the view such language is worded in.

  • Fernando, your link connects to the page of *all* my posts, so I’m not sure which one you’re referring to.

  • JH

    Libertarianism is a doctrine about the limits of state power. It is not a doctrine about individual excellence or individual morality.

    Is this really true? It seems to me that the most powerful form of libertarianism is both–or, at least, there are important connections between individual and political morality.

    Consider the question: why is it wrong for the state to criminalize the private use of marijuana? An obvious (but not the only) answer: well, there is nothing wrong with smoking pot. Why is it wrong for the state to criminalize sex between two men? Well, there is obviously nothing wrong with gay sex. And so on.

    This seems to be the only way to conclusively defeat legal moralism.

  • Fernando R. Tesón

    Sorry, Jacob, I meant “I suspect”

  • Fernando R. Tesón

    JH: I think I disagree. I may think there is something wrong with smoking marijuana, yet I’ll still oppose, on Millian grounds, the state’s attempt to prohibit the activity. The important point here is that the government is not entitled to prohibit conduct just because it thinks (perhaps correctly) that the conduct is morally wrong. It needs to show that the conduct is significantly harmful to others, and even then it should not prohibit it if the costs of prohibition outweigh its benefits (I leave aside here other instances or harmful behavior that should not be criminalized, like competitive harm.)

  • Fernando, in that case I’m genuinely puzzled by “Yet, as Jacob’s post suggests, libertarians share with progressives core beliefs that go beyond limiting the role of the state.” That post was mainly about things like military trials, torture, trial without detention: state actions, and political concerns, not extra-political moral ones. I don’t see that those core beliefs of liberals-including-libertarians raise the political/ moral distinctions you mention here.

  • Fernando R. Tesón

    Jacob: I thought that you were making, implicitly, a philosophical point: that progressives, like libertarians, value individual freedom, in contrast to conservatives who, presumably, value order and tradition. If this is true, then those differences would impact on extra-political morality.
    I apologize if I misinterpreted your post. I’m happy to withdraw the link to it, as the point I make stands on its own.

  • “…that progressives, like libertarians, value individual freedom, in contrast to conservatives who, presumably, value order and tradition.”

    I’ve noticed that those most strongly lamenting the destruction of tradition by an instrumentally rational and hyper-individualistic global capitalism are lefties (of the course the terminology I use here suggests that it would be). Conservatives complain of this too, but from what I understand this kind of right-winger is found in Europe in the main, and is a minority stateside.

  • Dan Kervick

    Libertarianism is a doctrine about the limits of state power.

    Why do libertarians care so all-fired much about the power of states, and neglect all of the other centers of concentrated hierarchical power?

    I know that people’s life circumstances are very different one from another. But personally, “the state” doesn’t get in my face very much, and I hardly notice it. The corporation I work for, however, is a thoroughly hierarchical and authoritarian system that rules over me and half my waking life with a heavy day-to-day weight. Of course I have the “liberty” to quit it at any time, and exercise my “freedom” to be unemployed and unable to support my family.

    And I actually feel like I’m part of the state, since I get to vote and campaign for it’s leaders, and speak freely about the performance of its highest officials – even denounce them and agitate against them. And I get to go to town meetings. But I have no participatory governing role in my corporation whatsoever, and could never make comments about it’s top executive’s performance in an open forum.

    Also, it now seems to me that the United States government is as much in Jamie Dimon’s and the Koch brothers’ hands as Barack Obama’s, on account of the extraordinary power they have acquired through the exercise of their precious economic liberty. Yet where is that all that libertarian fear and paranoia about being absorbed into Dimon’s financial empire?

  • John V

    Dan K,

    Your argument is anecdotal. If you worked for the state, you could make the same complaint you’re making about your job.

    Besides, you’re trying to make a comparison between your job and society. Not apples apples to any way shape or form.

    Finally, your final paragraph about “who owns the government” is really, really missing the whole point…besides the fact that it’s wildly off the mark. The idea is about limiting government power for the good of all vs. using for the good of all. Keep in mind that a central complaint among libertarians is that the idea of a people’s government that can be run for the common man over others is a fool’s errand since power always flows to the powerful. Thus, it’s better to make that power less worth usurping.

  • I think Dan’s question is one that libertarians need to take very, very seriously. One of the reason I admire Rod Long’s work so much is his willingness to do just that. See, for instance, this essay on libertarian feminism:
    http://charleswjohnson.name/essays/libertarian-feminism/

  • I second Dan’s sentiment on the workplace experience (or at least I have in the past – now I work for a small company, pleasant vibe but fewer benefits compared to a larger company), but would jettison the part about feeling like I have a bigger impact within the state. I’m a tiny minority with little voice within the latter so it does nothing for me by way of feeling empowered, but have a more visceral feeling of disappointment within the former.

  • Dan Kervick

    If you worked for the state, you could make the same complaint you’re making about your job.

    Well, of course, John V. But then I would be complaining about the state as my employer – not as the maker of the laws to which I and my fellow-citizens are subject. The fact is, neither government bureaucracies nor corporate enterprises are as internally democratic as they could be. It’s astonishing to me that people have accepted these oppressive command structures as acceptable aspects of the natural order of things.

    My job is my society. I spend half my waking hours in my workplace, and my affairs and concerns during that time are thoroughly governed by the aims, targets and rules established by my company. This is immediate and omnipresent in my life. The laws established by society don’t have nearly as much presence for me – nor I suspect for most of my co-workers. I suppose they might if I were a meth dealer, a pedophile or a tax rebel. But my tastes and moral dispositions are pretty ordinary.

    I’m not sure I understand the point you are making in the last paragraph. But my observation of human affairs instructs me that the natural outcome of attempts to sustain laissez faire economic freedom is to guilelessly permit the self-destructive conditions that lead to the rapid destruction of whatever freedom and security people have been favored to enjoy. A great many people are pretty ruthless. Left on their own to pursue their self-directed aims, they hustle, scam, con, rob, take, deceive, exploit and oppress their fellow man until they have achieved dominance over him. Preserving a decent society and way of life requires a constant vigilance over threats to democratic order and broad, common prosperity, and determined action to demote would-be lords from their positions of dominance.

    The only thing that has every protected the many from the tyranny of the few are attempts to band together in solidarity and mutual commitment to establish a government that can rule on behalf of the many. Obviously, these efforts frequently fail and have to be regenerated. But we either keep trying or submit to rule by kingpin. A laissez faire system is just the embryo of a mafia system. I know there is a certain kind of libertarian – not the bleeding heart type – who is actually attracted to this image of a few Nietzschean titans elevating themselves to lord it over the rest of us. But not me.

    In the US, it seems to me, we have an atavistic and excessive fear of government which is a legacy of our revolution. This paranoia constantly poisons and undermines attempts to get government to function competently and professionally. Yet people will still submit to the most abject humiliation and subordination, so long as it is not imposed by “the government.”

  • David Sobel

    Some such as Nozick claim the rights of the state are a reflection of the rights of the people in the state. He focuses on the claim that if the state has a right to X, that must be because the people in the state have a right to X. I will just assume he would also think that if the state lacks a right to X that is because the people also lack that right. If that were so, then if the state lacks the right to force me to live up to my self-regarding moral duties that will be because people lack such a right. If all that is right, then I don’t see the contrast between saying that libertarianism is a theory of the limits of appropriate state action, not of individual morality. On the above view if it is about what the state has a right to do it must also be about what individuals in the state are morally entitled to do.

    But the part of individual morality that is relevant to what the state can force people to do is the part concerning what individuals are morally permitted to force people to do, not the part about what people are required to do but no one is permitted to force them to do.

  • John V

    DK,

    “My job is my society”

    Well, these discussions are not very fruitful if you are going to speak in metaphors. You may choose to rationalize your job as your society but that isn’t the way it is. They are two separate things and I’m not changing the definitions of such basic concepts to suit your metaphor.

    Moreover, if you moved from employee to self-employed, you’d see just how present the state is. Just because you it doesn’t bother you in your own personal experience (or is less noticeable to you in your own personal experience) doesn’t negate its real presence in the larger picture.

    “But my observation of human affairs instructs me that the natural outcome of attempts to sustain laissez faire economic freedom is to guilelessly permit the self-destructive conditions that lead to the rapid destruction of whatever freedom and security people have been favored to enjoy”

    WOW. That’s a mouthful…and deserving of a topic unto to itself by one of the posters. I’ll just posit that your Marxian view of the economy is much further from the truth than anything I perceive.

  • John

    David, are you just saying that governments cannot be granted powers that people don’t already have? The way you phase it, if the state cannot do X then people surely cannot do X suggests the state is just another “person” in the polity with all the same rights as the citizen.

  • Dan Kervick

    John V, I don’t really mean my use of “society” to be taken as a mere metaphor. Each of us belongs to a number of different societies, and those societies move out – roughly speaking – in concentric circles. Which ones are most important for one’s well-being and freedom really depends on what form of life one leads, and the way in which the smaller societies one occupies happen to be integrated into larger societies. My workplace is a genuine society, whose norms and expectations and hierarchies play an immediate and pervasive role in my life.

    On the laissez faire issue, it’s a complex empirical question. I’ll just say for now that I am attracted to Hyman Minsky’s account of the behavior of financial markets, and also think many libertarians tend to underestimate the tremendous role information asymmetries play in exchange and allocation. They are therefore attracted to mathematical models of economic activity that predict kinds of efficiency, stability and aggregate welfare outcomes that don’t pan out in the real world nearly so well as the models predict. As a participant in the business world, I am well aware of the positive role played by competition, markets and market incentives. But these are highly imperfect mechanisms, and are an insufficient foundation for social organization. We also need some measure or rules, organization and strategic social planning, and need to apply preventive and ameliorative social medicine to the pathologies of market behavior which are repeatedly observed.

    Without regulation, financial markets innovate rapidly and constantly evolve new instruments, of a complexity only understood by some of the participants in the market. Some of the innovations prove useful, but the whole frenzy is destabilizing, leading quickly to speculative and Ponzi investment activity. In a word: flim-flam. I think we have abundant empirical evidence, from financial crisis after financial crisis over the past two centuries, that excessive risk-taking, stupidity, dishonesty and cheating are routine without regulatory checks, and that unregulated systems don’t avoid crisis and collapse simply through self-regulating market checks. Lack of regulation can cause a system to quickly degrade from a relatively efficient system for capital allocation into a riot of malicious and foolish predators and pigeons chasing other people’s money in socially dangerous and destabilizing ways.

  • John V

    Dan K,

    “I don’t really mean my use of “society” to be taken as a mere metaphor. Each of us belongs to a number of different societies, and those societies move out – roughly speaking – in concentric circles. Which ones are most important for one’s well-being and freedom really depends on what form of life one leads,”

    Well, sounds to me like a top-down government administrator of rules and burdens isn’t really effective in your societal view. Sounds to me like you see society as very complex because the view of it varies greatly from one person to another.

    OK. The thing is though, I don’t get how you square this complexity of how things affect individuals with differing agendas and needs with a desire to help the common man with government proactive policies. Let’s set aside whether that actually works as you intend. Who are you helping? How do you decipher that? How do you ensure that you aren’t harming another commoner? along the way? How do you know you really helping anyone at the same time? And again, what about the damage to others that can see and not see?

    “and also think many libertarians tend to underestimate the tremendous role information asymmetries play in exchange and allocation.”

    Is that really what libertarians are doing? I suggest that you look at 3 other dimensions to that idea:

    1. Modern Liberals underestimate information asymmetries and complexity(and local info in general) when trying to grapple with regulating things that are in constant flux and evolution.

    2. Modern liberals overestimate the chances of success of such intervention…as if the stated goal forms a direct line to real results.

    3. Modern liberals tend to underestimate the value of considering whether interventions will lead to a result that is truly overall better than the starting point.

    “Without regulation, financial markets innovate rapidly and constantly evolve new instruments, of a complexity only understood by some of the participants in the market.”

    That is meaningless and self-serving. First of all, there is LOTS of regulation at any given time. Innovations evolve from how incentives are aligned…and NOT from some theoretical notion of regulation or lack thereof.

  • David,

    I’m not familiar with Nozick’s detailed argument. I think that his argument rests on the idea that an organization only has the rights its members delegate to the whole. Therefore:

    1. It can only have rights if at least one member had those rights.

    2. It does not have rights the members have not delegated.

    I would add that power and scale matter. A great many rights are rights among equals. For example, many rights depend on mutual consent, and that depends on the real power to withhold consent. A kidnapper cannot claim that their victims consent to their threats, and a state cannot claim that their citizens consent to be governed.

    If you believe a legitimate state can exist, its scale, its nature, and its monopoly powers mean that state discrimination would violate members’ rights in ways that private discrimination might not. So the state does not have the same right to discriminate. It means the state pressuring people to boycott certain organizations is very different from members of the public pressure people to boycott certain organizations. It means the state restricting people’s freedom of travel is very different from people restricting who may enter their homes – immigration laws mean having men with guns keep people apart.

  • Dan Kervick

    Let’s set aside whether that actually works as you intend. Who are you helping? How do you decipher that? How do you ensure that you aren’t harming another commoner? along the way? How do you know you really helping anyone at the same time? And again, what about the damage to others that can see and not see?

    These are all good questions, John V, and I offer no one-size fits all answer to the proper balance of decentralized free market decision-making, government regulation or public spending and investment.

    One thing I would note however is that most of the “what if” questions libertarians raise about government participation in the economic sphere are not that different from the questions that face people who are responsible for making decisions about any large organization.

    We never achieve certainty about our choices. We can only acquire the best information available to us. I would point out though that we live in a world with many different countries, each of which has experimented with a variety of different approaches to addressing social challenges, and so we have some data to draw on. The US also has 50 states, and we can look at differing state policies as experiments as well.

    Almost all of our actions have unintended consequences – sometimes positive and sometimes negative.

  • David Sobel

    In retrospect I should have skipped the claim that the state has a right if and only if people have that right in their individual morality, and focused on the claim that if libertarianism is a story about personal morality, the claims about what the state may force people to do should be seen as tied to claims about what individual morality permits people to force people to do.

  • Just why do so many folks believe that some of us could rectify the problems with what others do (in the market or elsewhere)? Who are these people other than human beings with concerns of their own, first and foremost, which leaves them with just so much time and skill to be our helping regulators. A bit of public choice theory might disabuse them of their misguided view that these people know better than we do how we ought to act. And this doesn’t yet address the issue of what authority they have for butting in everywhere?

  • Pingback: angara fahise()

  • Pingback: satta matka()

  • Pingback: angara fahise()

  • Pingback: angara fahise()

  • Pingback: angara fahise()

  • Pingback: Daftar Agen Bola Terpercaya()

  • Pingback: bursa orospu()

  • Pingback: http://www.tradeonixbonuses.com/bonus-tutorial()