Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Libertarianism and Morality

I intend these comments as a friendly amendment to Matt’s thoughtful post.

What implications, if any, does adherence to a political libertarian principle have for other moral issues?

The libertarian principle (LP) is a view about the morality of state coercion.  LP defines the set of legal prohibitions that are morally acceptable. For libertarians, that set is considerably smaller than for others (I do not address here what the set includes).  For present purposes, a legal prohibition is behavior to which the state attaches a penalty. A behavior that is not legally prohibited under LP-justified laws is legally permitted.  Because under LP the set of legally permitted behavior is greater than under alternative political arrangements, individuals governed by laws justified under LP enjoy greater political freedom. This, I take it, is the point that Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch‘s book celebrates: the relative lack of external restraints in a libertarian society allows persons to do all these things that our over-regulated society does not currently allow them to do.

However, this leaves entirely intact issues of personal morality. It is perfectly possible for me to say simultaneously that prostitution should be decriminalized and that prostitution is morally wrong, degrading, or whatever. We understand this in many areas of life: a disloyal friend is a bad person, but the state has no business forcing him to do the right thing. Libertarianism is not a system of personal morality in this sense. One of the virtues of libertarianism is that it rejects perfectionism (which is why I consider J.S. Mill a member of our club in spite of some of his other views.) That something is immoral does not mean it ought to be criminalized. The set of legally permissible actions and beliefs under LP-justified laws has a subset of morally objectionable actions and beliefs. Not all actions that we are politically entitled to perform are morally defensible.

A person with racist attitudes is highly objectionable, and we are entitled to criticize him, refuse to socialize with him, ostracize him, and the like. But libertarians will insist that the state may not send him the police to try to reform him.  Conversely, can a racist person be a libertarian? Matt suggests he cannot, but I don’t think this is right, if by “libertarian” we merely mean adherence to LP.  I suspect this is a verbal issue, but someone who endorses LP and has racist views does not hold contradictory beliefs. He is just a bad person.

This analysis suggests two mistakes that libertarians must avoid. The type A mistake (and here I fully agree with Matt) is to suggest or imply that libertarians have nothing to say about politically permissible but immoral behavior. Libertarians can and must oppose and criticize immoral behavior just like anyone else. Unlike others, however, we don’t send the police to miscreants.

They Type B mistake is this. Suppose I endorse LP because I think all persons are morally equal or some such other value. I may be then tempted to enlarge the scope of state coercion to penalize behavior that undermines equality (I don’t think Matt supports this at all.) In other words: if, as Matt says, we are libertarians because we believe in other values, we must be careful not to allow pursuance of any one of those values to augment the scope of state coercion, and thus abandon libertarianism.  For myself, libertarian institutions are supported by a combination of normative and empirical reasons (I sketched them in my very first post). Usually, attempts to privilege one of those reasons will undermine the others.

  • “The libertarian principle (LP) is a view about the morality of state coercion.  LP defines the set of legal prohibitions that are morally acceptable.”

    So you’re saying that as long as it’s merely social coercion then libertarianism has nothing to say whatsoever?

    For instance if, say, every business owner, not only wholesale but retail, in a 300-mile radius agreed not to sell food, shelter, or gasoline to nor to employ people with brown skin and agreed further not to do to business-to-business transactions with anyone who violated that agreement then there would be exactly zero state coercion, but there would be considerable impact on any brown-skinned people who didn’t have a car and a full tank of gas prior to the agreement going into effect.

    Having grown up in southern Appalachia in the 1960s, and even more so having friends who remember growing up in northern Minnesota (who knew?), this isn’t as hypothetical as younger people might imagine.

    Change “brown people” to “non-Christians” and you’ve got a fair approximation of smaller areas in the American south east today.

    Change “brown people” to “pharmacists who sell contraceptives to women” and you’re looking at even larger (and growing) swaths of the country.

    What you’re saying, though, is that while libertarians might lament the distinct immorality of such non-legislated social behavior, it’s all 100% moot to LP, regardless of how many real individuals (both brown, or non-Christian, or female, plus anyone unwilling to passively refuse to do commerce with them) are harmed.

    My guess is you’ll say “well, LP accepts some set of legal prohibitions as morally acceptable, at at some scope or scale non-legislated social prohibitions become indistinguishable from legal prohibitions and thus enter the scope of LP after all.”  But then your hands are dirty all over again.

    For me, as a morally-bleeding-heart Libertarian, legal prohibitions and non-legislated prohibitions are one and the same.  Thus I disagree with your assertion that the scope of libertarian principle can be limited only to state coercion, or only to the morality of prohibitions imposed by the state.

    figleaf

    • Anonymous

      I really like your thoughts regarding the philosophy of Brown people.  Such prejudice / racism / discrimination is well and truly still alive today and we must protect people in my opinion.  I am very interested to see how this fits into BHL.

      Dale.
      Twitter: @DaleReardon:disqus http://www.settledin.com.au

    • My understanding is that the LP says it’s bad to not serve people on the basis of race, but it’s worse for the state to force you to serve people you don’t want to serve. If you want to fight discrimination, you need to do so through voluntary, and not coercive, means.

  • Ken Lanterman

    This is yet another reason this blog is the best on libertarianism out there. Eventually, one of you guys will say almost exactly what some of us have been thinking, and do it much more eloquently. 

    Thanks, Fernando, and thanks to you, Matt,  for starting the conversation.

    My only quibble with Fernando’s post is I wish there were some way we could drop the use of “morality” from our vocabulary. Use “values,” “choices” or “preferences,” instead, to steer clear of the dogmatism that can easily creep political discussions. (I have my own philosophical reasons, but I also think it would help us in our debates with those who think all libertarians are cold, cruel and heartless.) 

    If the use of “morality” is necessary, perhaps we could preface it with “personal” to indicate, I think like Fernando is saying above, that the libertarian principal is a value/choice/preference we hold regarding state coercion, but our personal morality doesn’t prohibit us from being critical.

    His last line gets really close to my position: “Usually, attempts to privilege one of those reasons will undermine the others.” 

    Whether you want to call them moral reasons or personal values, each is equally important. I may be assuming too much here, but I think that provides for an amoral, undogmatic libertarianism that leaves plenty of room for personal values and public criticism.

  • Mark Brady

    Do you mean Fernando’s thoughtful post?  The link doesn’t work so I’m not sure.

  • Peter Jaworski

    Matt: I think you may endorse what I’m about to say, but I want to make a distinction/clarification that I haven’t seen, and that I think is important, and is at least in this neighbourhood.

    The libertarian principle may very well be as you describe it, a view about state coercion. But one need not embrace the libertarian principle to count as a political libertarian. Maybe this is also your view, I’m not sure.

    To count as a political libertarian, on my view, requires no *particular* or specific normative commitment whatsoever; not a view about coercion, about well-being, autonomy, natural rights, utility, equality, reciprocity, need, and so on. 

    To count as a political libertarian requires someone to endorse what we can call the “libertarian set of political institutions” for whatever reason(s). If that set is A, B, C, D, and E, and Sally endorses A, B, C, D, and E, then Sally is a political libertarian regardless of why that is the set she endorses.

    I think it’s possible for Sally to, for example, endorse state coercion in principle. She might think, “If the angel Gabriel came down from heaven and became the senator in New Hampshire, then that senator would be morally permitted to coerce all of us to drink coconut milk,” for example. It appears to me that this would be an abandonment of LP, as you describe it, but it would not mean that Sally fails to be a political libertarian in the world we’re in, where the angel Gabriel isn’t in the senate. 

    • This post was written by Fernando, not Matt.

      For what it’s worth, I agree with what you say.  

      • Mark Brady

        Oops!  So I just realized.  Mea culpa!

    • Fernando Teson

      Agreed.

  • Anonymous

    Hi,

    I am very new to this philosophy but am attracted to most parts of it.  However morality does hold a central point for me.

    To me this discussion isn’t theoretical but real world – I am blind myself and face discrimination and prejudice lots of the time.  To my mind Libertarianism needs to encompass anti discrimination laws and protection as a means of rotecting the liberty of the wronged person.  Libertarianism  is meant to protect property rights but I think it can be broadened to protect individual rights, independence of action and thought.

    If we don’t protect people from discrimination then to me that person doesn’t possess their full liberty – they are prevented from exercising some of their rights and to me that should be stopped and protected.

    From my brief reading thus far Libertarianism requires people to respect the equal rights of others – anti-discrimination law ensures that the rights of everyone are respected and the protected person can have their full liberty.

    My view may not be as well reasoned as others because I am not well read in this area yet.  Also my background is as a lawyer (just enrolled in a law PhD) rather than a philosopher so I have been more interested in the real world outcomes rather than the philosophy – however reading this blog is very thought provoking.

    I have a thick skin but hope we can debate this intelligently.  I look forward to hearing others views.

    Dale.
    Twitter: @DaleReardon:disqus Blog: http://www.dalereardon.com.au

    • Gordon Sollars

      Dale, your idea of “full liberty” doesn’t seem congenial to libertarianism – or, since this is the BHL blog, let me say “ordinary” libertarianism.  On a view of action that a typical libertarian would accept, A’s discrimination against B does not prevent B from exercising her rights; it fails to enable B to act in some way, but that is a different matter.  A’s discrimination would be considered (by this “typical” view) a “refusal to deal” with B; and A is allowed to choose with whom he will deal.  Some libertarians would attribute this to A’s “right of free association”; others would reduce it back to A’s property right in his body.

      Since you are a lawyer, you might want to point out that, e.g., Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act limits what “employers” may do, but strictly speaking does not completely extinguish A’s freedom of association, for an “employer” is defined as a person with 25 or more employees.  Furthermore, the “person” typically involved is a corporation, not a natural person. 

  • Earlier I posed some not implausible but still hypothetical examples of situations where a social majority in region could collude to essentially coerce behavior from a minority without invoking Fernando’s notion of Libertarian Principle applying only to the state and only to (legislative or dictated) coercion by the state.  And thus at least in principle (alleged LP principle anyway) Libertarianism would properly have zero stake in the matter.

    It occurred to me that an entirely non-hypothetical example would be the entirely social, non-legislative decision of banks not to issue credit cards to women prior to roughly 1972.  I remember watching the 60 Minutes episode about… I think… tennis star Billie Jean King’s effort to get a credit card card from a bank based on her income without the co-signature of her (low-to-no-income) husband.   At one point Mike Wallace or one of his colleagues was asking a banker “what if a woman has no husband.”  The banker said “her father could co-sign.”  Next question, what if she has no father either.  Then a brother could, sez the banker.  What if no brother or other male relative.  The banker, looking mildly uncomfortable at this point, said “well, maybe she could get a neighbor to co-sign for her.”

    Were there any laws, at all, enforcing banking policies of discrimination against women in 1971 and before?  Nope, as far as I know there wasn’t a single one.  Were there laws actively coercing women to surrender credit to banks?  Nope, not that either.  Could you then say that according to Libertarian Principles the situation of literally all banks by convention-not-law systematically denying credit to approximately half the free citizens of the United States of America even when their on-paper financial history was equal or superior to other citizens should be ignored as irrelevant to Libertarianism?

    Ron Paul, of course, would say definitely yes — excepting the rights to hoard gold and hire a private militia there is no right more central to Libertarianism than the right to systematically discriminate against anyone you (and your friends) damn well please.

    I’d say that if that were the case then a Libertarian Principle centered entirely on state coercion and legal prohibitions is necessarily insufficient to what most of us would consider to be the central appeal of, you know, actual Libertarianism.

    So.  Would a law forbidding banks from discriminating against certain individuals by privately-held financial institutions for purely social, non-economic, non-criminal reasons be consistent with LP?

    figleaf

  • That should be “Would a law forbidding banks from discriminating against certain
    individuals by privately-held financial institutions for purely social,
    non-economic, non-criminal reasons be consistent with LP as Fernando has constructed it?.

    figleaf

  • Anonymous

    Fernando, you said that the libertarian principle is a view about the morality of state coercion. I think it should be a view about the morality of coercion, period. Many libertarians, including myself,  believe that the state should not have the authority to do anything that would not be morally permissable for an individual to do in the same circumstances. In other words, the same rules that apply to individuals should also apply to states.

  • My wife disagrees and believes it is impossible for a racist to be a libertarian. I happen to agree with her. A collectivist at the level of race isn’t going to object to the state enforcing their world view.

    • I strongly agree. Authoritarian attitudes in the social sphere eventually translate into authoritarian attitudes in the political sphere. In practice, racism, sexism, etc. cause people to take for granted unequal treatment and makes them likely to support laws that reinforce a tiered society.

  • Anonymous

    “The type A mistake (and here I fully agree with Matt) is to suggest or imply that libertarians have nothing to say about politically permissible but immoral behavior. Libertarians can and must oppose and criticize immoral behavior just like anyone else. Unlike others, however, we don’t send the police to miscreants.” –> the way I see it we ought to treat libertarianism as a strict political/legal theory which criticizes institutionalized rule/law/command-inforcement by the so called authorities.
    that doesn’t mean that libertarians cannot criticize social behavior that goes beyond that scope, but they would do so NOT as libertarians but as regular moral or humanistic individuals.
    just because libertarianism as a political/legal theory is also motivated by some humanistic values, this common heritage with our other social valuations should not confuse us to treat every normative evaluation as one that is ‘libertarian’ in nature. 

  • “However, this leaves entirely intact issues of personal morality. It is perfectly possible for me to say simultaneously that prostitution should be decriminalized and that prostitution is morally wrong, degrading, or whatever.”

    I think Spooner makes the illuminating distinction between moral crime, that which harms others, and moral vice, that which harms oneself. The latter seems  close to what you mean by personal morality. With Spooner’s distinction it pretty clear what is morally actionable via force – only harm to others.

  • “I suspect this is a verbal issue, but someone who endorses LP and has
    racist views does not hold contradictory beliefs. He is just a bad
    person.”

    1. It’s true that the principal of libertarianism does not contradict racism, however…

    2. The word racism applies to *irrational* conclusions based on race.  (It would not be racist to come to rational evidence-based conclusions on a correlation between skin color and IQ, for instance.) Irrational conclusions often entail contradictory beliefs in and of themselves.

    3. Mere error, even moral error, does not make one a bad person. Andrew Cohen favors a system wherein I would be shot dead if I sufficiently resisted his proposed parent licensing. Does that make him a bad person? I don’t think so. When asked if he would be willing to impose such violence personally, he says no and I believe him. I think he has an irrational bias in favor of expert-ism which tends to make him overlook ubiquitous systemic violence. It is common and even rational for people to hold to irrational biases in areas where correct views have negligible individual return. 

    Why would you say a person endorsing the libertarian principle is a bad person if he’s not harming others or  advocating harm?

  • In other words: if, as Matt says, we are libertarians because we believe in other values, we must be careful not to allow pursuance of any one of those values to augment the scope of state coercion, and thus abandon libertarianism.
    My counterargument to this is that state action should not be measured solely by the quantity of action being taken, but also whom that power is directed at. If two aspects of the state largely offset each other, then removing one intervention will cause the impact of the other intervention to increase substantially. Similarly, a case can be made for increasing state action, where such action creates a net increase in social well being. This is not anti-libertarian, just more nuanced and dialectical than has been been typical for libertarians.

    The other objection to this argument is that you need to justify why the libertarian political principle is privileged over and above the liberal social attitudes that give rise to it. I definitely agree that the liberal tradition directly leads to a presumption that the default of the law should be to permit an activity with no restrictions. However, the liberal tradition is premised on conceptions of fairness and equality that are destroyed by hierarchical social ideas like racism. Doesn’t that at least open the door for a temporary state intervention to purge racist attitudes from the culture? It seems like “thin” libertarianism allows the conclusion of an argument to rewrite the premises.

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  • Gordon Sollars

    Regarding the Type A mistake, while a person who is a
    libertarian can “oppose and criticize immoral behavior just like anyone else”,
    I don’t quite see how she can do it qua libertarian.  Regarding the Type B mistake, I don’t quite
    see what keeps this kind of libertarian from crossing a line by advocating the
    enlargement of “the scope of state coercion”.   I think the problem underlying my difficulty
    is the lack of precision over the content of the libertarian principle
    (LP).  If I understand Matt’s position as
    amended by Fernando, there are premises (beliefs, tenets, values, etc.) that
    imply (or strongly support) the LP, but that also imply (or strongly support)
    conclusions that go beyond the LP.  If
    there was one consistent set of such premises, then a person who is a
    libertarian could “oppose and criticize immoral behavior” qua libertarian, that
    is, from the standpoint of these premises.  
    In that case, however, why would that person see any need to avoid a
    Type B mistake?  If the premises imply
    (or strongly support) conclusions that go beyond the LP, why stop at the limits
    of coercion that the LP permits?  On the other
    hand, if there is not a single consistent set of premises that imply (or
    strongly support) the LP, then a person who is a libertarian would have a
    reason not to make the Type B mistake, but could not argue, *as a libertarian*,
    against behavior that the LP would not prohibit.

    Or, in other words, if there is a “thick libertarianism”,
    e.g., one that endorses property rights *and* nondiscrimination, why shouldn’t
    the thick libertarian advocate the use of state coercion to limit
    discrimination?  And if there is only a “thin
    libertarianism”, then although the libertarian is free to contest morally
    repugnant behavior, she cannot do so from a libertarian standpoint.

    I suppose that “thick libertarian” could argue that there is
    some moral wrong or harm associated with expanding state coercion beyond the LP.  Perhaps that is the challenge of “thick
    libertarianism”: what *is* the special wrong or harm that is incurred by
    expanding beyond LP limits to prohibit, e.g., discrimination, via state
    coercion?

    Rather than argue for a “thick libertarianism”,
    I would suggest that libertarians are not (surprise!) in complete agreement
    over what behaviors are properly constrained by state coercion.  I suspect my suggestion makes it harder to
    draw a line between libertarians and liberals, but isn’t that what the BHL
    project itself suggests?

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