UPDATE (2:18 pm): A couple more points:
- In the What Everyone Needs to Know series, we’re not supposed to take a hard stand. I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m just trying to get them to understand what libertarians think and why, and in particular, to see that not all libertarians are a bunch of cranks and crackpots, though some are.
- Also, whether an argument successfully changes minds isn’t exactly a good test of an argument anyways. Most people–including most people who agree with me–are close-minded, biased crackpots when it comes to political thinking. A good argument makes it so people should change their minds, but few good arguments will actually succeed in changing minds.
George H. Smith continues his commentary on Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. In part 2, he takes issue with my non-treatment of Rothbard and my treatment of Rand. In part 3, he criticizes me for my discussion of positive liberty.
What to say? One of my goals in the book was to make libertarianism seem reasonable to people who don’t already agree. Focusing on Rothbard and Rand seemed like a bad idea. If I wanted to convince someone to be a libertarian anarchist, I’d recommend he read Michael Huemer’s new book, not Rothbard. My blurb for Huemer’s book:
Huemer has produced not just a brilliant work of political philosophy, but a gripping page-turner. With an engaging style and sharp wit, Huemer demolishes two entrenched dogmas: that we have a duty to obey the law, and the state has the right to force us to obey. Huemer’s conclusions may be controversial, but he makes them seem like commonsense.
Huemer starts with commonsense moral thinking and gets us to controversial conclusions. Rothbard starts with bad, dogmatic arguments for controversial ideas and then tries to generate even more controversial conclusions. Huemer is a model of good philosophy. Rothbard is a model of bad philosophy.
As for positive liberty, here’s my quick take:
- People have been using the words “liberty” and “freedom” to mean lots of different but related things for a very long time. (Check OED.com if you’d like.) Positive conceptions of liberty were not artificial constructions produced by Marxists to confuse people. Rather, the words have for a long time had both positive and negative meanings. (Again, check OED.com.) Many libertarians believe that once upon a time, “liberty” just meant a certain conception of negative liberty, but then a bunch of nasty leftists destroyed the concept by introducing new definitions. That’s a-historical. When libertarians insist on reserving “liberty” only for negative liberty, they are revising the English language.
- We don’t settle anything about politics by settling on definitions for these words. Literally nothing normative is at stake for how we define “liberty”.
- Instead, once we pick a definition–or once we decide just to accept commonsense definitions–these leaves open the following questions: 1) Is liberty, so described, valuable? In what way? What obligations do we have with respect to liberty so described? 2) What, if anything, should government do about that kind of liberty?
- Answering this last question requires us to look at empirical evidence about what happens when government is given the task of promoting or protecting that kind if liberty. Government gets the job of protecting or promoting liberty only if it’s comparatively good at it. (Notice this is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition.)
- As a matter of fact, protecting negative liberty has been the most important and successful method of expanding people’s positive liberty.
- Some people think that if positive liberty really were a form of liberty, this would license socialism, because we would need to guarantee that people enjoy positive liberty. But there’s a difference between guaranteeing in the sense of rendering inevitable (as when an economist says that raising the minimum wage to $100/hr would guarantee rising unemployment) vs. guaranteeing as expressing a firm commitment to achieve an end through law (as when Bush guaranteed no child would be left behind). Legal guarantees are often no guarantee at all. Often they get in the way of the thing they’re supposed to guarantee. Again, see points 4 and 5.
- Even if Marxists caused disasters by talking about “positive liberty”, that doesn’t challenge 1-6 above. All it shows is that the Marxist strategy for delivering positive liberty failed. See, once again, points 4 and 5.
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