[Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.]
Jan Narveson: “Liberty is Property … the libertarian thesis is really the thesis that a right to our persons as our property is the sole fundamental right there is” (The Libertarian Idea, 66). Conjoin this to a negative account of liberty as non-coercion and ponder a Buddhistic paradox. If freedom means non-frustration of the exercise of one’s legitimate property rights, you can be made perfectly free by being relieved of all property, including the right to your own body and life. (Just as Buddhists may say freedom is a matter of deadening your desires, so they cannot be frustrated.) Ergo, if only everyone consents to sell themselves as slaves to Leviathan, we shall enter into libertarian paradise forthwith! (Except Leviathan himself, poor fellow. But no system ensures perfect freedom for all.)
Something has slipped. Hayek can tell us what it is:
It would be difficult to maintain that a man who voluntarily but irrevocably had sold his services for a long period of years to a military organization such as the Foreign Legion remained free thereafter in our sense; or that a Jesuit who lives up to the ideals of the founder of his order and regards himself “as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will” could be so described. Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom. (Constitution of Liberty)
What we need is a positive account of liberty because what we want – ultimately, although we may aim at it by indirect means, by all means! – is, in fact, positive liberty (not null, non-nutritive Buddhistic substitutes for it.) Again, Hayek is on the case, articulating the relevant sense of liberty as effective autonomy:
The question of how many courses of action are open to a person is, of course, very important. But it is a different question from that of how far in acting he can follow his own plans and intentions, to what extent the pattern of his conduct is of his own design, directed toward ends for which he has been persistently striving rather than toward necessities created by others in order to make him do what they want … Freedom thus presupposes that the individual has some assured private sphere, that there is some set of circumstances in his environment with which others cannot interfere.
What we need to do, then—this is obvious to all fair-minded folk!—is build a strong welfare state, which wraps us back around to Narveson: “The idea of libertarianism is to maximize individual freedom by accounting each person’s person as that person’s own property” (175).
Of course, the parents may object to this flagrant taking-without-compensation—this engorgement of government with so many appropriated products of private labors! (Did that baby homestead itself?) Libertarianism that includes guaranteed self-ownership is the camel nose of communism, gotten under the tent of true liberty! Furthermore, it is sure to lead to rampant child abuse (why will parents care for children if they can’t own them?) Typical liberal self-defeating perverse consequences (grumble grumble, letter to the editor).
On the other hand, some may say this bold social justice scheme for redistributing wealth does to go far enough.
Why shouldn’t the idea of libertarianism be to maximize individual freedom by accounting each person’s person as that person’s own property … and also accounting that person’s bank account as containing at least $1?
Or by passing Obamacare, to ensure that the person each person gets gets healthcare?
Libertarians will want to say something shifts in principle when we pass past giving people themselves to giving people themselves plus a dollar. But I don’t think this reaction is warranted. (‘What do you take me for?’ the libertarian objects, scandalized by my increasingly obscene propositions. ‘I think we have established what you are. Now we are just haggling about the price.’ You know the old joke? Well now it’s a joke about social justice.)
Some libertarians say there is something metaphysically special about personhood (as opposed to $1) that warrants self-ownership at birth. (Government doesn’t give you you. Self-ownership is prior.) I find this line implausible because, while I agree personhood is wonderful, its wonderfulness chiefly flows from the consideration that people have the capacity to flourish as autonomous beings. What, then, is peculiarly ‘natural’ about extending to every person part of what they need, to flourish, but not the whole package? Why should Natural Law be a ceremonious half-measure? (Emerson’s dispossessed youth laments: “It appears there was some mistake in my creation, and that I have been mis-sent to this earth, where all the seats were already taken.” I can picture Nature as amoral, maybe as moral, but libertarian Nature as the moral equivalent of a chronically overbooked airline eludes me.)
It is possible to concoct a consequentialist justification for formal half-measures. But then we are consequentialists. So let’s haggle about the price.
Let’s look at the Chartier and Johnson (eds.) volume (PDF) that is the occasion for this symposium: Markets Not Capitalism: individualist anarchism against bosses, inequality, corporate power, and structural poverty. In “Socialist Ends, Market Means”, Gary Chartier argues that libertarianism is—can be, ought to be—socialism. (He admits saying so will probably cause more terminological trouble than it’s worth. So fine. Don’t call it that. No one is going to force you.)
There is good reason to use “socialism” to mean, at minimum, something like opposition to:
1. bossism (that is, subordinative workplace hierarchy); and
2. deprivation (that is, persistent, exclusionary poverty, whether resulting from state-capitalist depredation, private theft, disaster, accident, or other factors.
“Socialism” in this sense is the genus; “state-socialism” is the (much-to-be-lamented) species. (150)
Chartier’s title ought to be “Autonomous Ends, Socialist Means, Market Means To Those Means”. Libertarianism is commitment to maximizing (optimizing) the human supply of freedom (as autonomy), hitched to the hypothesis that socialism (in the generic sense) is the most likely way to do this, atop the hypothesis that market means (negative liberties all around) are the royal road to the true (generic) socialism (that is the royal road to true freedom.)
The social relationships that market anarchists explicitly defend, and hope to free from all forms of government control, are relationships based on:
1.ownership of property, especially decentralized individual ownership, not only of personal possessions but also of land, homes, natural resources, tools, and capital goods;
2. contract and voluntary exchange of goods and services, by individuals or groups, on the expectation of mutual benefit;
3. free competition among all buyers and sellers – in price, quality, and all other aspects of exchange – without ex ante restraints or burdensome barriers to entry;
4. entrepreneurial discovery, undertaken not only to compete in existing markets but also in order to discover and develop new opportunities for economic or social benefit; and
5. spontaneous order, recognized as a significant and positive coordinating force—in which decentralized negotiations, exchanges, and entrepreneurship converge to produce large-scale coordination without, or beyond the capacity of, any deliberate plans or explicit common blueprints for social or economic development. (Chartier, Johnson, 2)
Libertarianism, on this view, is an alloy of ‘high liberal’ ideals and social theory—really social prophecy. As such, it is more or less falsifiable. Libertarianism could turn out to be wrong about generic socialism being the social form most conducive to an optimized autonomy supply. It might be wrong about market anarchism being the best way to bring about generic socialism. If it turns out that state socialism, or actually existing laissez faire capitalism, or neo-feudalism, or Leninism, or Burkean conservatism, or ‘Nudge’-style paternalism administered by alien ant overlords, or expanded Obamacare, or giving everyone $1 at birth, would, in the event, optimize the effective autonomy supply, then the libertarian is philosophy-bound to run with the best plan.
Conversely, all high liberals ought to admit that if these libertarians are right—if generic socialism makes liberty, if markets make generic socialism—that’s the way to go. Probably. Fair enough.
Of course there’s more that is plausibly distinctive about libertarianism, over and against competing versions of high liberalism. Example: the main reason Tomasi is inclined to build in certain economic rights as basic, whereas Anderson is not, is that Anderson suspects Tomasi’s ‘market democracy’ will backfire in ways Tomasi is confident it won’t. Tomasi thinks Anderson’s evident preference for a mixed market approach is likely to backfire in ways Anderson thinks it won’t. So the dispute is, inevitably, an attempt to argue about means and ends simultaneously. It’s messy, but it can’t go more cleanly.
So let’s hope it goes civilly.
Having done my diplomatic best, let me piss it away. A touch of the paranoid style, if you please, to corrode that high theory gloss! I see it as my sad but scrupulous duty to drag libertarianism through the mud of hermeneutic suspiciousness.
In the Preface to Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick reflects on what it’s like to be Robert Nozick—for it is an unusual thing to be. At first he reveled in the contrarianism of it. Then, after a while, he grew out of that, into the plain old philosophy of the thing. He was a libertarian!
Over time, I have grown accustomed to the views and their consequences, and I now see the political realm through them. (Should I say that they enable me to see through the political realm?) Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company. (Anarchy, State and Utopia)
Nozick loves paradoxes. Let’s call this one Nozick’s Paradox of Presumptive Paranoia. Why do people become libertarians? They hate freedom, that’s why! (It’s not a sure bet, but as good as any.)
It’s not that libertarianism is mean. It’s that the mean libertarian—and the average and modal libertarian, by my rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation—is wobbly about that liberty business.
What was Nozick thinking? Specifically? No idea. Barry Goldwater winning in the South? Murray Rothbard grumping about Women’s Lib? But, in general, it goes like this. In America you can’t be against freedom. It would be indecent. Nevertheless, lots of people have been—and continue to be—uncomfortable about, or hostile to, effective autonomy for members of groups they feel uncomfortable with, or hostile to, or over which they have traditionally exercised power: blacks, women, the poor, homosexuals, people with strange religions or eccentric lifestyles. Since libertarianism is officially in favor of autonomy for people, and these are people, libertarianism ought to be ‘mood affiliated’, at least, with the goal of autonomy for all groups that, plausibly, have lacked it to some significant degree. In fact, the opposite has all-too-typically been the case. Partly this is due to principled opposition to leftist means, which are regarded as perversely statist. But largely it seems due to the fact that, if you want to keep some group down, libertarian market means might be the ticket. No, it’s not a guaranteed solution to your other-people-getting-free problem. But it’s worth a shot! Social Jim Crow (an extreme example, but the dynamics of the model generalize. ‘Vulgar libertarianism’ is the term some contributors to the Chartier , Johnson volume use for crypto-bossism, I guess you could call it.) Market means permit what J.S. Mill calls ‘the tyranny of society’. So you get to be anti-freedom while calling it ‘freedom’. You fulminate against what J.S. Mill calls ‘the tyranny of the magistrate’!
I am sorry to have to say it, but my considered opinion is that libertarianism is, in the psychic life of US society and culture and politics, at least as often a confabulatory reflex against freedom as it is an impulse on its behalf. A ready-made way to betray the ideal of freedom while pretending to uphold it to a heroic degree.
Roderick Long writes: “I find it preferable to talk of vulgar libertarianism rather than of vulgar libertarians, because very few libertarians are consistently vulgar” (208). I prefer it the other way round, because there is no interesting vulgar libertarian theory, so in the seminar room you can skip to the good stuff. But very many libertarians are consistently semi-vulgar. (No libertarian hates all our freedoms all of the time. But some libertarians hate some of them all the time. And all of them are hated by some libertarian some of the time. And no libertarian likes to admit hating any of them any of the time. So it’s a problem. I see that it says ‘bleeding hearts’ at the top of the page. I’m not saying all that is just ketchup and corn syrup. I’m just saying.)
Libertarian theory is a charming mix of wild-eyed utopianism and hard-nosed realism; but, while the eyes roll every which way, including back into the head, the hard-noses, as hard-noses will, point outwards—at liberals, for example, with their naïve notions about how the apparatus of the state can be wielded on behalf of the powerless. Plainly, the powerful—who, as liberals really ought to have noticed, have the power—will grab those handles and work them for all they are worth. Fair enough. But libertarianism, too, was born to be a Trojan Horse.
Let’s end on another Narvesonian note:
Libertarianism is one kind of liberalism. It is interesting that it is often thought of as a kind of conservatism, as when libertarian defenders of private property are contemptuously referred to as “right-wing” by leftish writers, as though to defend private property in the name of liberty were exactly on all fours with defending genuinely right-wing military dictatorships. The assimilation in question might be understandable in journalists or cracker-barrel pundits, but to find professional philosophers doing so is inexcusable. (2)
No. It is, in fact, inexcusable to find professional philosophers not doing this. You can’t even put the pure theory on one shelf, the hermeneutically suspicious stuff on another. They have to mix. (This causes hurt feelings. Then the seminar discussion goes worse. I’m sorry about that. There’s nothing to be done.)
If you are interested in political philosophy, you are interested in the best versions of liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism (communism, feudalism, so forth.) You want to know what to believe in, ideally. But, unless you are a very strange person, you also interested in what liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, so forth, are, in actual and potential political practice. You want to know who to believe in, actually. Who are these people? And that feeds back into your ideal theory.
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