Bertram, Robin and Gourevitch (BRG) don’t think that libertarianism takes seriously enough the ways in which workers’ freedom is restricted in a capitalist economy. Jason Brennan thinks that BRG misunderstand the sort of libertarianism to which we Bleeding Heart Libertarians are attracted. I see a bit more merit in BRG’s argument than Jason does, but I share his concern. In fact, I think he understates it. BRG misunderstand not just Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, but libertarianism as such. And this misunderstanding infects both their analysis of what kinds of behaviors libertarians ought to regard as problematic, and their analysis of how our libertarianism (allegedly) renders us unable to respond appropriately to these problems.
Libertarianism and Freedom
According to BRG, “libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom.” Indeed, according to their interpretation, “Libertarians claim that freedom is their core value and that it’s maximized when the state refrains from interfering in the private choices of individuals” (emphasis added). This understanding of libertarianism plays a crucial role in their argument, the thesis of which is that in responding to the issue of workplace unfreedom, libertarians must either “give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or … reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.” If libertarianism is defined at its core by its commitment to maximizing individual freedom, than a failure to apply that standard in the workplace demonstrates that libertarianism fails to live up to its own moral standard.
I think the idea that libertarianism can be understood as fundamentally about freedom, simpliciter, is a mistake. It is an even graver mistake to suppose that libertarianism is committed to the maximization of freedom. But before I get into that, I want to pause briefly to dispense with the rather silly idea that libertarians are committed to an “exclusive focus on the state.” I take it that the point BRG wish to make is that libertarians only care about freedom when it is violated by the state; not when it is violated by businesses or private persons. But this is greatly overstated at best, and palpably false at worst. Even Murray Rothbard, who is usually my go-to guy when I want to find a quote from somebody endorsing the most extreme and caricatured form of libertarianism, doesn’t hold this view. In fact, he explicitly rejects it. See, for just the most explicit statement of a principle that runs throughout his writing, his essay on “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle,” where he writes that it is a mistake to suppose that libertarianism’s main dichotomy is
“government” vs. “private” with the former bad and the latter good. Government…is after all not a mystical entity but a group of individuals, “private” individuals if you will, acting in the manner of an organized criminal gang. But this means that there may also be “private” criminals as well as people directly affiliated with the government. What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not “private” property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property. It is justice vs. injustice, innocence vs. criminality that must be our major libertarian focus.
Of course, libertarians believe that the most effective and destructive perpetrator of injustice has generally been the state, and so for this reason the state has occupied a correspondingly large role in libertarian social analysis.But this is an issue of the application of libertarian moral principles to empirical reality, not a matter of basic principle itself. And while I’ve argued quite recently that libertarians could do a better job learning from the left about the ways in which non-state power can pose a threat to liberty, the idea that an exclusive focus on the state is essential to libertarianism, such that if we were to give it up we would become “garden-variety liberals,” is clearly false.
So, back to freedom. What are we to make of the claim that this is the “core value” of libertarianism? It certainly sounds plausible enough. Libertarians certainly talk a lot about freedom, and “liberty” is, after all, the root of the term “libertarian.” But it is not mere liberty as such that libertarians value – not “mere freedom.” Libertarians do not regard every exercise of freedom to be equally valuable, or equally worthy of political protection. The rapist’s freedom to rape, the mugger’s victim to steal, and the killer’s freedom to kill, all are curtailed to the fullest extent possible under a libertarian regime. Even the system of libertarian property rights itself, as most of us on this blog have explicitly acknowledged, entails significant restrictions on individual freedom – my right to this plot of land entails your unfreedom to use it without my permission. What makes these restrictions of freedom acceptable, and what differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable infringements of freedom, is a matter of some dispute among libertarians themselves. For neo-Lockean libertarians like Robert Nozick, freedom as a moral category is strictly subordinate to a prior theory of rights – my freedom to sell my kidney is worthy of political protection because it is compatible with my right of self-ownership and violates no one else’s rights; my freedom to swing my fist at your face is not. For consequentialist libertarians, freedom will only be worthy of political protection to the extent that this is compatible with the underlying teleological theory. But no libertarian, as far as I am aware, holds that mere freedom as such is the core value.
They certainly do not claim that freedom ought to be “maximized.” Whether or not the idea of “maximizing” freedom is coherent, and it is far from clear that it is (are we supposed to count up the freedoms that various social systems allow and compare them? If so, how are freedoms to be individuated? By act-types? Tokens?), it is certainly not something that libertarians endorse. If liberty can only be maximized by sacrificing the rightful freedom of a few for the greater freedom of the many, libertarians will oppose it, just as they would oppose sacrificing the rightful utility of the few for the utility of the many. The closest you’re likely to find to a maximizing conception of liberty in the libertarian literature is someone like Herbert Spencer, whose Law of Equal Freedom states that “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” But even here, the idea that freedom is to be maximized is subordinate to the requirement that freedom be equal.
A similar and related confusion pervades BRG’s discussion of libertarians’ attitudes toward coercion. Just as libertarians are supposed by BRG to be unequivocally in favor of freedom, as such, so we are alleged to be unequivocally opposed to coercion, as such. The claim about coercion is wrong partly for the same reason that the claim about freedom is wrong. Just as libertarians recognize that a regime of property rights restricts liberty, so too do they recognize that it does so through the use of coercion. But they believe that this sort of coercion is morally permissible, even while other kinds of coercion are not.
Even more than in the case of freedom, though, it is probably a mistake to put too much weight on the concept of coercion, whether the subject is libertarianism or just applied political philosophy more generally. In its most natural, non-philosophical sense, coercion simply means threatening to do something bad to someone unless they do what you want. In this sense, of course libertarians recognize that the workplace is rife with coercion. BRG seem to think they’ve found some sort of “gotcha” when they quote the libertarian Robert Nozick as citing as an obvious example of coercion: “You threaten to get me fired from my job if I do A, and I refrain from doing A because of this threat….I was coerced into not doing A.” But there’s no gotcha here. Nozick is making a conceptual point, not a normative one. Yes, threatening to get someone fired unless they do what you want is coercive. Is it morally wrong? Well, that depends. Here are two different ways of filling in the variable in Nozick’s example:
Show Up: I threaten to get you fired from your job if you A, where A = “regularly sleep in past the time at which you are supposed to show up,” and you refrain from doing A because of that threat.
Put Out: I threaten to get you fired from your job if you A, where A = “refuse to sleep with me,” and you refrain from doing A because of that threat.
Both examples involve coercion. Show Up involves coercion that, in almost all circumstances, will be morally permissible. Put Out involves coercion that, in almost all circumstances, will be morally impermissible. What makes the difference is a matter of some dispute, but that’s where the philosophical action is, and obviously we will have to look beyond the concept of coercion itself to settle the matter.
Incidentally, most non-libertarians will think that Put Out involves activity that is both immoral and properly criminalized. But we can come up with other cases of coercion where these come apart. Consider:
Prove Your Love: I threaten to break up with you if you A, where A = “refuse to sleep with me,” and you refrain from doing A because of that threat.
Like the first two cases, Prove Your Love involves coercion. Like Put Out, the coercion is (arguably) immoral. (If you don’t think it’s immoral to pressure your romantic partner into having sex by threat of break-up, I’m sure you can come up with your own substitute example). Unlike Put Out, though, the coercion involved is of a sort that almost nobody believes should be criminalized.
More refined philosophical conceptions of coercion don’t help either. On moralized conceptions of coercion, an act only counts as coercive if it is morally wrong in some way. So in order to decide whether an action is coercive, we already have to settle its moral status. On non-moralized accounts of coercion, whether an act is coercive or not doesn’t tell you anything about its moral status. In either case, then, the moral status of an action is an issue that can only be settled by analysis independent of the concept of coercion.
None of this settles the interesting substantive questions of whether limiting bathroom breaks for employees, or asking for their Facebook login information, or any of the other shocking activities that BRG catalog are in the final analysis morally wrong, or whether they ought to be legally prohibited. And that’s kind of the point. Settling those substantive issues, or understanding what the libertarian position(s) on them is, or whether libertarianism’s position(s) is defensible, requires more than looking at a few buzzwords like “coercion” or “freedom.” It requires looking at the substantive moral analysis that underlies those buzzwords, and gives them their force and meaning.