Hello blog readers. Like my fellow bloggers I am stunned and grateful for the attention our blog has generated. I am also tickled that my suggestion for the name of the blog was chosen.
Many people wonder about and are concerned about the foundations or justification of libertarianism or classical liberalism. My view is that worry about the foundations of classical liberalism is misplaced. Here I present a method of justification that Matt Zwolinski calls overlapping consensus libertarianism in his excellent overview of libertarianism. See http://www.iep.utm.edu/libertar/
The idea an overlapping consensus comes from John Rawls in Political Liberalism. To quote Zwolinski, “Rawls’s idea is that decisions about which political institutions and principles to adopt ought to be based on those aspects of morality on which all reasonable theories converge, rather than any one particular foundational moral theory, because there is reasonable and apparently intractable disagreement about foundational moral issues.” Applying this to libertarianism, rather than looking for one or the best moral or political theory, one grounds libertarianism by showing it is compatible with a variety of reasonable approaches.
The advantage of this kind of approach is that one avoids the house of cards problem. Put all your effort into showing that one kind of political theory is the correct view, and supports certain principles or institutions, then if it turns out your theory is mistaken, you have no support for your principles or the institutions you support. But if your principles or institutions are supported by a wide variety of political theories or perspectives then you avoid this problem. The wider the variety of approaches that support your favored principles or institutions the better.
In my book Is the Welfare State Justified? I used this kind of approach–which I called convergence arguments–with a special twist. I argued that the predominant or mainstream nonlibertarian perspectives in contemporary political philosophy–e.g.,egalitarianism, prioritarianism, communitarianism–should converge on supporting more market-based or libertarian institutions than they realize. While these perspectives think that their political principles or values support central welfare state institutions (social insurance programs, government welfare) I argue that they are mistaken. When one compares how welfare state institutions actually work compared with how more market-based alternatives actually work the latter are superior from the standpoint of the dominant perspectives in contemporary political philosophy. (The kind of argumentation I used in my book involves doing comparative institutional evaluation, which means combining political philosophy with social science, a point I will return to in a later post).
Notice that the kind of convergence arguments I described above do not challenge nonlibertarian political principles or values. I think that there are two things to be said for this. First, it’s hard to change people’s minds that their basic political principles or values are mistaken. Second, it gets the debate focused on to me what is the central issue between libertarians and their opponents, namely what kinds of institutions we should have. Classical liberalism, or libertarianism should not be identified with a certain way of arguing for limited government, free markets, etc., but rather with support—from a variety of standpoints—for those institutions.