In a previous post, I rehearsed some reasons why I think care ethics might be best actualized in society through markets. I will expand on those reasons in a future post. Here, I want to discuss what I think libertarianism could gain from care ethics.

As mentioned in my previous post, care ethics is a moral framework in which the morally salient feature of relations between people as whether the relationship is guided by care – whether people meet each other’s needs attentively and responsively. Care ethicist Nel Noddings articulates this well when she writes that:

In some sense this [care ethics] vision emphasizes something different from – but overlapping with – theories of justice. Rather than arguing about what institutions best satisfy what we collectively owe to each other – respect for natural rights, a certain degree of welfare, etc. – care ethicists discuss what social institutions are most conducive to the formation and maintenance of caring relationships between people.

As a libertarian, I find this care ethics framework very attractive. When I reflect on why I am a libertarian, it is not because I reason that there are individiual rights that ought to be respected (a conversation that always seems to devolve into fruitless speculation about where these rights come from and why we ought to respect them). Nor does my libertarianism come from a belief that liberty (in a small government sense) will produce the best material consequences for all over the long run (though this is closer to right), or that I think libertarian institutions are the ones we’d all agree to if deliberating a social contract. While I don’t deny the importance of either of these, my libertarianism stems most from wanting to see a world where people are as free as possible to form direct caring relations with others, and believing that state action more often impedes than allows this to happen.

Care ethicists are just about uniformly against the sort of minimal state libertarianism I support, which they often equate to a soulless individualism where everyone is expected to be a rational maximizer of their own self-interest, motivated solely or mostly by profit rather than care toward others. There must, they say, be protection by a caring government to either buffer the nasty effects of the market or offer care services directly that would be corrupted if offered on the market.

I, of course, think most of this is false. States do not have a good record of caring very well, humans are often every bit as other-oriented as self-interested (a very tricky dichotomy anyhow) and individual liberty and trade strengthen communities more than state interventions do. Still, the kinds of misunderstandings that care ethicists exhibit about how markets and states compare keep cropping up.

I happen to think that at least part of the reason is that we libertarians need to do better at thinking about and explaining how libertarian institutions not only lead to a more just society (“best satisfy what we collectively owe to each other” in Noddings’s words) but a more caring world (“are most conducive to the formation and maintenance of caring relationships between people”).

Why do this? Because while we are right to care about respecting rights and designing institutions that work for the benefit of all, I’d argue that an equally important concern is whether caring relations between people can develop and flourish. If justice is about ensuring that institutions satisfy our mutual obligations to each other, care is about ensuring that institutions increase the likelihood that people will give and receive care beyond what the minimal obligations demand. Especially if we want the state to cede many of its current ‘welfare’ functions, we need to keep the importance of caring relations between private actors central to theorizing what a libertarian society should look like.

I’m not simply advocating for a shift in libertarian rhetorical emphasis from justice to care. Although showing how libertarianism can speak to various concerns (social justice, care, etc.) is important, I am suggesting that we incorporate concern with care ethics into justice-heavy libertarian theorizing. As Noddings wrote, we might see care ethics as “something different – but overlapping with” justice concerns.

For instance, a project I’m working on now is arguing for private educational markets over public education systems, not on the grounds that the latter violate rights to determine the education of our children or arguments that private schools are superior on consequentialist grounds. Rather, I am concerned that state education leads to less caring results (less allowance for individuals to form communities that adequately meet their needs, for instance) than private schooling. To the degree that I entertain government regulations, it is on the grounds of what regulations (increasing the flow of information in markets, ensuring that everyone have reasonable exit rights from educational contracts) best promote the ability of people to create caring relationships and dissolve uncaring ones.

Like some care ethicists, I think we should view care ethics not as a theory to replace theories of justice, but an approach that should be used alongside theories of justice. Particularly if we want to see an end to, or reduction in, coercive forms of state “aid” to the vulnerable, our theorizing needs to address how a libertarian world will be a more caring one (as well as a more just one).

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  • Sean II

    “Still, the kinds of misunderstandings that care ethicists exhibit about how markets and states compare keep cropping up.”

    A sure sign that they are not, in fact, misunderstandings.

    “We libertarians need to do better at thinking about and explaining how libertarian institutions not only lead to a…more caring world”

    Yeah, we’ve done that already, with plenty of help from reality. Any care ethicist who cared enough to discover the truth would see that. Anyone who hasn’t, must be trying hard not to.

    • Kevin Currie-Knight

      It’s hard for me not to sympathize with the first point here. When I read care ethcists critiques of market society – which look a lot like communitarian critiques of atomistic individualism, etc – it seems to me like they may not be very familiar with many actual champions of markets that we are familiar with and how THEY defend markets.

      Yet, I am not sure I agree with your second comment. A large number of justifications for a libertarian society seem to me to rest on either consequentialist or natural rights grounds, and while that is okay, it doesn’t do much by way of convincing people that a libertarian world will be more than a world where we are all free to interact in impersonal markets and do only for each other what justice demands.

      There are definitely those who DO speak to concerns about caring community in a libertarian world – Beito, McCloskey, Hayek; I just find that work to be some of the most compelling and would love to see that occupy more of the justifications and explanations about what a more libertarian society could offer

      • Sean II

        It’s very much Hayek that I had in mind, though other libertarian sources would do just fine for anyone who isn’t shoving fingers in his ears and loudly undulating his tongue in an effort to ignore them.

        The whole libertarian message is one of voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit. Consequentialist libertarians talk about little else but what this means and how it works. Natural rights libertarians may rest their case on other points, but in the end even they always end up describing a vision of libertarian paradise, rich with caring and rich enough to make caring more than merely a nice gesture.

        We libertarians are the only people who know what the hell we’re talking about when it comes to caring. We’re the ones who found out why coerced caring is bad news. We’re the ones who explain why caring without markets is frequently and often massively value-destructive.

        Hayek didn’t just try to save us from the Lubyanka. He also tried to save us from the unwanted holiday sweater – that most perfect symbol of what happens when people try to cooperate without prices, when they try to care without knowing.

        You can’t care for someone if you don’t know what they value. And you can’t know that – even in your own family, you can’t know that – without markets.

        Libertarians have a monopoly on effective caring.

        • good_in_theory

          You’ve gotta be pretty stupid and mentally stunted if you literally *can’t* figure out what some people care about some of the time with something other than a market.

          • Sean II

            Even when you think you can, you can’t.

            For instance, someone might say “I don’t need a market to tell me that G_i_T gets a great deal of pleasure from being an invasive species, romping around the libertarian habitat and fouling it with deliberately obtuse, contrarian one-off remarks, etc.”

            But nope…it turns out we can only make that observation against a background of preferences revealed in and by the marketplace.

            The fact that you enjoy being a scourge of libertarians gets its meaning from the cost and the opportunity cost you suffer to obtain it. The more transactions available to you, the more it means when you choose one rather than another, and the more there is to learn about who makes what choices and why.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I think “invasive species” is apt (and clever), but I’m not so sure about “scourge,” as this implies that at least some readers take him seriously.

          • good_in_theory

            Quite a few readers have taken me seriously, as have some of the authors. So apparently I guess “scourge” it is.

          • good_in_theory

            Well, I guess if you define the market as, “every situation in which someone picks one out of *some quantity greater than 1*, then every judgment occurs in a marketplace. Of course, what special use this truism is, and why anyone should care, is rather unclear.

            I’d consider saying that it is impossible to know anything about anyone’s preferences other than through the price system is deliberately obtuse, but I guess our sense of what is obtuse differs.

          • Sean II

            Here’s every GiT thread you’ve every seen:

            You play dumb, which obliges your opponent to simplify things. Then you accuse him of being simplistic.

            You pretend not to know what words mean, which obliges him to spell out the definitions. Then you accuse him of being tautological.

            You begrudge almost every point and concede almost nothing, which causes the other guy to harden his outlook. Then you accuse him of sweeping overstatement.

            It’s all such bullshit.

          • good_in_theory

            While it’s clear you have a prodigious ability to produce bullshit, I don’t have much faith in your ability to identify it.

            You tried to make a point. It was bullshit. You said we can’t know anything about what people value without markets. What might be the case is that we can’t know anything about what people value without observing their choices. Conflating all instances of choosing with “markets” is just ideological grandstanding.

            But you’re hardly one to let “true” or “false” or “fact” or “fiction” get in the way of bashing “leftists” with the requisite amount of rhetorical flourish.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Masterfull !

        • matt b

          “Libertarians have a monopoly on effective caring.” Pretty much, yeah. But I do wonder how much of this is PR. For example for every Milton Friedman emphasizing the abundant fruits produced by market economics you have a libertarian saying “my money is my money and you can’t take it no mater how many people it helps.” These people would be, and here I duck for cover knowing the explosive reaction this term generates, “cartoon libertarians” but they certainly generate a lot of attention. When leftists say “oh libertarians don’t give a fuck about anything other than negative liberty and their wallets” that’s largely, but not entirely, attributable to ignorance on their part. I think that’s what Kevin means when he says that: “There are definitely those who DO speak to concerns about caring community in a libertarian world – Beito, McCloskey, Hayek; I just find that work to be some of the most compelling and would love to see that occupy more of the justifications and explanations about what a more libertarian society could offer.”

          • CT

            “my money is my money and you can’t take it no mater how many people it helps.”

            How about if I say: “taking my money won’t help (yes some of us ‘hard’ libertarians do genuinely believe this) and … well yeah … it’s my money”.

          • matt b

            Sure it’s a more defensible position and you know I’m pretty strong on property rights but I don’t believe they are the only consideration when we are mapping out the moral universe.

          • CT

            Neither do I.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            But there is nothing wrong with that position. It is only the small minded person who makes the asumption that the person is greedy for wanting to keep what they earned. And to assume that that person will not give some of it to voluntary charity or invest it in some job creating scheme, etc. And even if all they do is spend it selfishly, then it still circulates in the economy and also provides for local sales taxes.

  • reason60

    I am new to hearing about “care ethicism”, but it sounds very much like it is based on the same foundation of sacred postulates that most religions are- e.g., the human person is sacred, the family structure is to be honored, rightful authority exists, and the individual exists in semi-autonomy within the community. The modern world has developed a list of sacred beliefs that underlie most of the welfare state.

    For example, schools- would a market-driven educational system produce universal access (the sacred belief underlying our public system)? Or would it simply produce a better result for most, and a worse result for some (the typical result for markets)?

    Is universal access a desired libertarian outcome?

    Maybe the “misunderstandings” are not ear-plugging, but a confusion as to what is the essential platform that libertarian thought holds sacred; Asserting that markets may possibly lead to a more caring environment is irrelevant if there isn’t some idea of what a “caring environment” would look like.

    • martinbrock

      “Care ethics” sounds like a platitude to me, and platitudes turn me off.

      Who an education market serves depends upon who may demand goods in the market, so this question involves the system of propriety (the rules governing what one may exchange in the market) as much as it involves the market itself.

      I favor a market in education, but I favor a market in which students or their guardians exchange the student’s future productivity for present education. A simple debt model is not the only possible medium of exchange, and I prefer an equity model, so for example, a student might owe an educational institution a given proportion of his income for a number of years after completing a course of education, the educator’s entitlement to this income might also be negotiable.

      I favor this approach in a hypothetical world in which far fewer entitlements to monopoly rents exist, so a person pledging entitlement to his future labor this way is not competing unduly with people only pledging entitlement to other rents.

      I don’t know why this approach to financing education is less “caring” than, say, threatening to shoot anyone who will not contribute income to educational institutions serving everyone entitled to be educated by them.

      • reason60

        What is your intended goal in making education market-driven?
        The current model doesn’t even claim to provide the highest quality, and never did- it only claims to provide universal access, as a moral imperative.
        Do you accept that moral imperative, or do you have something different in mind?

        • martinbrock

          The goal of education is satisfying people’s desire for education. If universal access to education is a moral imperative, then the system of education finance that I imagine satisfies the imperative, as long as the education is valuable to the educated; however, I don’t want to force anyone to accept any particular education.

          Requiring my own child to learn to read and write, for example, is not “force” in this sense, but I also don’t want to force other parents to educate their children as I choose to educate mine.

      • Kevin Currie-Knight

        “I don’t know why this approach to financing education is less “caring”
        than, say, threatening to shoot anyone who will not contribute income to
        institutions educating everyone entitled to be educated by them.”

        I think that the direct exchange of value for value that typifies markets leads to more direct caring relations between people than “I pay the tax guy, the tax guy pays the school, the school educates people whose money may or may not have paid the school” models. I also think that the existence of exit options and choice that typifies market transactions will lead to scenarios where people can seek out relations that are most responsive to their needs, and where even the most self-interested of vendors will be more attuned to customers’ needs.

    • Kevin Currie-Knight

      For most care ethicists, the morally salient feature of any human transaction is that it establishes or nourishes a caring relation between people. (I think they are on the right track for what is important in a great many human relations, but think they go too far. After all, why judge my purchase of bread from the store by whether there was care amongst my transaction. But…)

      Yes, I think you could say that care ethics shares a lot in common with some of those ‘sacred postulates,’ but really, the ones regarding the importance of the idea of semi-autonomy and community.

      Universal access might be a goal insofar as a care ethical position would want to ensure – at least as much as possible – that everyone can receive some kind of good education. But “universal access” is tricky, because many will take it in an egalitarian way i don’t think is compatible with care ethics; at best, a care ethicist would generally argue that everyone should have access to some kind of education that is responsive to their needs.

      As far as the conditions for what caring relations look like, they tend to be that both parties (particularly the carer) is responsive and attentive to the needs of the other and acts in a way that, as accurately as possible, addresses the other’s needs. (I hope from that description you can understand why I think that markets in education will produce more genuinely caring relations than government provided education.)

  • famadeo

    This part caught my eye:

    “Especially if we want the state to cede many of its current ‘welfare’ functions, we need to keep the importance of caring relations between private actors central to theorizing what a libertarian society should look like.”

    But what exactly would this mean? If individuals are bound to the same degree in both cases, how is one scenario more “libertarian” than the other?

    Though I’m not myself a libertarian, I pretty much agree with the emphasis on individual freedom. I just don’t follow them in the design of institutions and their strucutral disparities of power (economics is, after all, another instance in the distribution of power).

    They are right in not overemphasizing compasion or caring because, as a matter of fact, at a certain point such concerns do become unreasonably restrictive. The problem with libertarianism runs much deeper than whether or not their individual practitioners are charitable enough or not.

    • Kevin Currie-Knight

      “But what exactly would this mean? If individuals are bound to the same
      degree in both cases, how is one scenario more “libertarian” than the
      other?”

      I’m not sure I follow the question. What I have in mind here is that if libertarians have the goal of a free society, and a free society where people’s welfare is not primarily the concern of governments but of private actors helping (and transacting with) each other, I think libertarian discourse of what a good society looks like has to speak to and be concerned with how a freer society could lead people to care for each other more directly.

      To make it concrete, we can talk about whether and to what degree a welfare state is the proper role of government, but we could also talk about how the absence of a welfare state might lead people to care more directly for the welfare of others (or what policies could be structured to lead to that more direct relation and make a welfare state un- (or less) necessary

      • famadeo

        What exactly do you call a “free society”? You read as if free were synonymous with no (or less) govenrment. This is where my question, which you quote, arises: the point ought to be *how* constricted is an individual, not *who* is doing the constricting, whether its government or “thy neighbour”.

        • ph16

          Just remember one thing famadeo, the government is the only one who force you to do things with big men with guns.

          • famadeo

            That’s a joke, right?

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