Here are some policy areas where classical liberals or libertarians seem to have a lot of common ground with those on the political left:
• Immigration – Immigration is a net benefit to the receiving country and a matter of justice to would-be migrants. We should allow more of it – probably much more.
• “Corporate welfare” – Protectionist, promotionist, and mercantilist policies (to borrow Andrew Cohen’s terminology) are inefficient and unjust, and should be abandoned.
• Agricultural Policy – Using tax dollars to prop up US or EU agribusiness is harmful to consumers’ health and pocketbooks, and is a gross injustice to poor farmers elsewhere in the world.
• Anti-militarism – Many or most of the current uses of American military power are unjust. They are also, secondarily, ineffective in advancing Americans’ genuine interests.
• Anti-war-on-drugs – The expansion of police and military power for purposes of preventing the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs is both unjust and disastrous in its consequences.
This list is far from exhaustive. But notice two things about it. First, for each of these issues we find a convergence of moral and pragmatic arguments. Second, these areas of agreement are, on almost any reasonable measure I can imagine, much more important than most of the areas of disagreement that persist between libertarians and those on the left. Whether our military is off fighting unjust wars or not is much, much more important from the standpoint of both justice and people’s well-being than whether or not we have a minimum wage or a single-payer health care system.
But if that’s the case, then why aren’t we talking more about these issues? The answer is because while these areas of agreement are important, they are not all that interesting. In fact, they are not all that interesting precisely because they are important.
Here’s an analogy. I teach moral philosophy to college students. Over the course of the semester, we talk about different moral theories – Kantian deontology, Aristotelian virtue ethics, Millian utilitarianism, for instance – and what those moral theories have to say about different issues of moral controversy. In order to demonstrate the ways in which different moral theories diverge, I’ll point out that a utilitarian, for instance, might favor the use of torture in a carefully constructed ticking time bomb scenario, whereas a Kantian deontologist would not. A Kantian, in contrast, might not be willing to tell a lie in order to save an innocent person from harm, whereas a utilitarian would.
It’s interesting to think about the ways in which moral theories diverge. Doing so opens up conversations about the underlying structure of moral theories, and invites students to critically reflect on their own moral commitments.
But, from a less academic perspective, these differences really aren’t all that important. Yes, we construct a hypothetical in which utilitarians will say one thing about torture and Kantians another. But in the real world, where torturers are actual agents of the state with far from perfect information or motives, and where the efficacy of torture at extracting information is questionable at best, the case for torture from any moral perspective looks thin indeed. On the other hand, that people generally refrain from lying in their interactions with one another is a genuinely important moral issue – but it is one on which all moral theories converge.
Academic and blogospheric discourse gravitate towards hard cases and areas of conflict. Those are interesting. And because we spend so much time talking about them, we slip into thinking that they are important. This is a mistake.
To be sure, there’s a time and a place for exploring hard cases. That’s true for moral theory, and it’s true for political philosophy. But let us not forget on this blog or elsewhere that this is largely an academic enterprise. And an academic enterprise with seriously distorting effects on our perspectives. Perhaps, too, let us try to make time to explore our areas of convergence. After all, surely we can find something interesting to talk about in issues so important?
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