Libertarianism (again)

Over at Critical Thinking, Jeffrey Ellis says that libertarianism is more justified than conservatism or liberalism, because it doesn’t involve government force, except to preserve “liberty” which is “far less onerous than the alternative value sets” and therefore more justified to enforce.

The problem is, of course, that liberty means different things to different people. Libertarians have a very specific definition of liberty, which not everyone shares. Proudhon for example, would not accept the libertarian argument that property rights have anything to do with liberty. And certainly, me having property rights over my garden acts to reduce my neighbours’ freedom, in that they can’t use it. Moreover, while libertarians talk about negative liberties (freedom of speech means no-one can censor you), others talk about positive liberty (right to a job means someone has to provide you with a job). It is not a priori clear why the libertarian version of “liberty” is the correct one.

In his follow-up, Ellis adds more of the same, claiming that libertarianism best enables pluralism, so that we can each pursue our visions of the good. But again, this is not clear. If we turn to Rawls, he too comes up with a “thin theory of the good,” i.e. the minimum necessary for the state to provide so that individuals can pursue their pluralistic visions of the good life. But the value set that he claims is necessary is much different (and larger) than libertarians would agree with. Why are libertarians right, and Rawls wrong? Ellis may claim that the libertarian value set is less onerous, but this is unclear. Arguably the libertarian conception of property rights is more onerous than what Rawls proposes. Besides, even if the libertarian value set is less onerous than the Rawlsian one, we want the value set to be exactly as onerous as it needs to be, and no less, otherwise it will fail to enable us. For instance, the libertarian value set is essentially {Property rights, self-ownership}. Why not just reduce it to {Property rights}, and permit assault and murder? In fact, why not just reduce it to the empty set {}, and permit total anarchy? Certainly, this is less onerous imposition by the state…

Now, the libertarian will rightly argue that allowing murder may help psychopaths to pursue their value of the good, but overall it reduces pluralism because the rest of us get terrorised and killed. But now we are back to the point of what exactly is the optimal state value set to enable pluralistic pursuit of our individual value sets, and this is inherently going to be a subjective judgement. Why not {Property rights, self-ownership, traditional morality}? Why not a whole host of values? Any “thin theory of the good” argument is inevitably going to be unsatisfactory because it implicitly relies on the value sets of the proposer, even though it is supposed to be independent of them.

So: the fact that a libertarian state would enforce fewer rules than a conservative or liberal state does not make the libertarian state less coercive independent of value judgements. Nor is it clear that a libertarian state would better enable citizens to pursue their own value sets – it would for some, it wouldn’t for others.

Note: Despite what Ellis seems to think, I am a huge believer in free markets and limited government. I just don’t think they are value-neutral. Indeed, I think the strongest case for them rests explicitly on moral grounds, that I have the right to keep what I earn, and so on. As I have said before, I would love to live in a libertarian state, should it exist, be stable, and be underpinned by an appropriate and self-reinforcing culture. But that state would be enforcing its laws by compulsion, it wouldn’t be the least bit value-neutral, and no-one should pretend otherwise.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. One thing to keep in mind is that “libertarian” is a very large tent — i.e., those who call themselves “libertarians” have a wide range of opinions, much wider I think than liberals or conservatives. Even libertarians I think do not agree specifically on what liberty means, at least not in every context.

    I’m not sure I understand your arguments in support of your claims “the fact that a libertarian state would enforce fewer rules than a conservative or liberal state does not make the libertarian state less coercive independent of value judgements. Nor is it clear that a libertarian state would better enable citizens to pursue their own value sets – it would for some, it wouldn’t for others.” You assert these claims after a few paragraphs that do not seem to build to those points as far as I can tell. What am I missing?

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  2. Posted by I am not... on February 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Libertarians are indeed a broad church, but I think my position here encompasses them all. A libertarian who doesn’t believe in property is no longer a libertarian, he’s an anarchist, and I’ve never heard of a libertarian who’s OK with assault, murder etc. Most libertarian disagreements on liberty involve how you apply those values to specific situations – e.g. abortion, or role of the state. These dispute strengthen my point, not weaken it.

    I’m sorry that you were unable to follow my argument in this post: clearly that’s my fault. That a libertarian state having fewer rules doesn’t make it less coercive independent of value judgements is the conclusion of paragraph 2: essentially, libertarians believe in using coercion to create many denials of liberty (e.g. enforcing property rights, believing in negative not positive liberties). Other states do not use as much (or any) coercion in these ways, hence libertarians are not doing purely less coercion they are doing coercion in a different direction.

    A libertarian state not better enabling pluralism is the conclusion of paras 3 and 4. Essentially, any “thin theory of the good” will help enable some people to pursue their goals and hinder others. Compared to conservatives and liberals, a libertarian state does less hindering, but consequently less enabling. Why not do no hindering at all? Why not do more enabling? Claiming that this is the “right” balance is purely subjective.

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  3. “libertarians believe in using coercion to create many denials of liberty” — I think most libertarians would claim that they envision the role of the state to defend liberties, not deny them, and that the state should not coerce, but rather prevent coercion.

    I still don’t see your point about hindering versus enabling. The argument I made was that in a society with a libertarian government, people are free to pursue their own value sets, but in (for example) a conservative-controlled society, the freedom to pursue your own value set is more restricted (you can’t have same-sex marriage, for example).

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  4. Posted by I am not... on February 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Yes, of course most libertarians would argue that, but as I think I have made quite clear, this argument rests on value claims as to the nature of liberty and coercion. If you accept the libertarian conceptions of liberty and coercion, then it follows that libertarianism isn’t coercive. If you don’t, you don’t. Liberals in particular fundamentally do not accept the libertarian definitions of freedom and coercion.

    In a libertarian state, people are not free to pursue their own value sets. If my value set is “rape and pillage in Central Asia,” I will be forcibly prevented. However, this prohibition thereby enables the value set “live unmolested by your neighbours,” which will be harder to pursue without prohibitions on rape and pillage. Clearly, you think this is a trade-off worth making in terms of pluralism, because in some sense it’s in accord with “most” value sets. But we may also note that “most” value sets will include a certain basic standard of living – arguably pluralism might also be benefited by a welfare safety net. And so on. As I point out in my post, Rawls wrote a lot about what basic core of societal rules would best enable pluralism, and he came up with a much more extensive set than libertarianism. You can’t both be right, and there’s no real objective evidence that can resolve the dispute.

    I note in particular that the libertarian conception of pluralism particularly favours individualistic value sets (e.g. “marry someone of the same sex”) over communitarian value sets (e.g. “live in a community where we all follow the same morality”). This is also where most of the leftist attacks on Rawlsian pluralism came from.

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