Archive for the ‘libertarianism’ Category

On August 7, Robert Draper (New York Times) asked: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” One excerpt:

Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it. For decades their ideas have had serious backing financially (most prominently by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David H., ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket), intellectually (by way of policy shops like the Cato Institute and C.E.I.) and in the media (through platforms like Reason and, as of last year, “The Independents”). But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.

Draper quotes Senator Rand Paul as saying: “there was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when ‘libertarian’ was a term that scared people. Now I think it seems more like a moderate point of view. So I think the term is something that is definitely attracting, not repelling people.”

Unfortunately, if the term no longer scares people, it may be because they don’t understand the term or its implications.

Yesterday, Pew Research released a report “In Search of Libertarians.” Pew found that 14 percent of the respondents described themselves as “libertarian.” When asked (in a separate multiple choice question) to specify what was meant by “libertarian,” Pew concluded that only 11 percent of the population claimed to be libertarian and knew the definition of the word. In case you are wondering, Pew defined libertarian as “someone whose political views emphasize individual freedom by limiting the role of government.” While 57 percent identified this statement as libertarian, 20 percent identified it as “Progressive,” 7 percent as “Unitarian,” 6 percent as “Authoritarian” and 6 percent as “Communist.” It is hard to imagine that 12 percent of the population actually believes that communists or authoritarians want to reduce the role of government and emphasize individual freedom.

Alright, maybe only 11 percent claim to be libertarian and know what the term means. Maybe the “libertarian moment” is a small one. However, there is more bad news. On most policy issues, those who claim to be libertarian (and understand the term) were only modestly different than the public as a whole. Sometimes, these differences were not what one might expect. For example:

Libertarianism is generally associated with a less activist foreign policy, yet a greater share of self-described libertarians (43%) than the public (35%) think “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.”

I am not certain what to make of these results. Perhaps self-proclaimed libertarians have failed to reflect sufficiently on libertarianism’s policy implications (libertarianism, after all, is not simply reducible to being “cool” with gay marriage and legal weed). Perhaps some subset of “libertarians” are identifying as such to signal their distaste of the major parties. Whatever the answer, if the Pew results are correct, it seems unlikely that we are experiencing much of a libertarian moment.

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The always entertaining P.J. O’Rourke has some reflections on the recent FreedomFest in Las Vegas (DailyBeast). Much of the piece is good fun (as one might expect). But O’Rourke does end with an important question that has bedeviled libertarians for quite some time: how do you make the leap to mass politics?   In O’Rourke’s words:

people love to hear what libertarians have to say until those people go into the voting both. Then limitations on the size, power, and expense of government start to get personal.

According to the Census Bureau, 49 percent of Americans receive some kind of government benefits. And political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides of The Century Foundation (which is liberal-centrist) say that if you throw in everything that can be construed as a government benefit, e.g. mortgage interest deductions, 96% of Americans are on the take.

What would be a good yard sign for a libertarian politician?

Vote for _______
He Can Give You Less 

Make Sure Not Much Happens Ever” isn’t a catchy slogan. As O’Rourke notes: “I suppose we could infiltrate the government and do nothing.  But federal employees, at the V.A. for instance, seem to have that base covered.”

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Persons of Straw

Alright, straw men… I guess I have been an academic for too long. Elizabeth Nolan Brown (Reason) observes that many journalists who write about libertarianism are in the business of constructing straw men. They simply do not feel the slightest need to do the kind of research necessary to make credible statements:

Not only do you not have to know the first thing about libertarianism to cover it for major news outlets, it is perfectly fine to a) decline to ask anybody who does know, b) make up your own version of what it is, and then c) lament the terribleness of this terrible philosophy or people you have just created.

Brown illustrates her points by drawing on a recent essay by Damon Linker. I have read a fair amount of Linker’s work and find it quite thoughtful, but that is another matter. The larger point seems quite correct: many media commentators (and any number of academics) feel little need to go beyond poorly constructed straw men when arguing against libertarianism.


Many academics I know present one of four caricatures of libertarianism, two of which they find frightening and the other two a bit bemusing. First, there is the libertarianism that is best exemplified by Timothy McVeigh. It can be found where the Christian Identity movement, the Tea Party, and the National Rifle Association overlap. The world they would like to create would end up looking a good deal like Mogadishu (As one of my friends says: “If you like libertarianism, you will love Somalia”). Second, there is the libertarianism that is exemplified by Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko. Here we have the corporate titans, the Koch brothers, and the 1 percent intent on rigging the system to perpetuate massive levels of inequality (“Could we actually get a Gini coefficient approaching 1?”). Third, we have the tinfoil hat libertarianism that fears the conspiratorial “powers that be.” Imagine a combination of 9/11 truthers and Comic Con attendees living in their mothers’ basements. Finally, there are the “smoke-em-if-you got-em” libertarians. These are the libertines who are largely interested in free love and free drugs but are largely apolitical. The world they would create looks a lot like a Grateful Dead concert (or Zuccatti Park absent the “Occupy” placards). Libertarianism is either evil or easily dismissed as an oddity that has no relevance to contemporary politics.

In contrast to these kinds of caricatures, Brown explains:

Libertarians are the ones who tend to both support same-sex marriage and people’s right not to be compelled to work in service of one; to want to get both our bosses and the government out of birth control decisions; and to take free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and personal autonomy very seriously.

None of this sounds too frightening–or too unreasonable–unless you are intent on using the power of the state to impose your own vision on others. Brown’s piece has some links to recent Reason posts that speak to contemporary issues. They may be of use for those seeking to get a better grasp on libertarianism.

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After weeks of media obsession with Senator Cruz, the GOP-forced government shutdown, and the impact on public opinion, the Obama administration’s use of drones and the NSA’s vast surveillance efforts are once again gaining some space above the fold. The Washington Post has an interesting piece on the civilian casualties from drone attacks, reviewing the recent findings of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In Yemen, Human Rights Watch investigated six selected airstrikes since 2009 and concluded that at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians, including a pregnant woman and three children who perished in a September 2012 attack.

In Pakistan, Amnesty International investigated nine suspected U.S. drone strikes that occurred between May 2012 and July 2013 in the territory of North Waziristan. The group said it found strong evidence that more than 30 civilians were killed in four of the attacks.

Although the White House declined to comment on the reports, it directed attention to President Obama’s May 2013 speech where he said that “drones would be used only against people who pose a ‘continuing, imminent threat’ to the United States and only in cases in which the avoidance of civilian casualties would be ‘a near-certainty.’” Excellent.

Meanwhile, past allegations of NSA interception of phone conversations abroad (in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Germany, Mexico, etc.) were updated with new information about  its interception of French phone calls on a “massive scale.”    Not to worry. A National Security Council spokeswoman explained: “We’ve begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.” Once again, excellent.

None of this has received the kind of attention one might have imagined.  Stop Watching Us is planning a rally in Washington DC on October 26—the twelfth anniversary of the signing of the PATRIOT Act—to “demand the U.S. Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs.” The rally has the backing of a broad and diverse set of advocacy groups, ranging from the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Libertarian Party and (believe it or not) the US Pirate Party.

Of course, Tom Watson (Salon) objects to the NSA’s policies, but not as much as he objects to the participation of libertarians in the protest (h/t Reason).   Why object to the libertarians? Because “their own argument for privacy is weakened by the pollution of an ideology that uses its few positive civil liberties positions as a predator uses candy with a child.” Strong stuff, but it gets better:

libertarianism is a form of authoritarianism disguised in a narrow slice of civil liberties. In trumpeting the all-knowing, ever wise wonders of the totally free and unencumbered market, it bestows all the power on those with access to capital. You may say we’re there already, but under a pure libertarian system, things would get much worse.

Watson concludes that for libertarians, “it’s always about the man on the balcony,” making reference to Hayek’s support for Pinochet (for a more nuanced presentation, see an ungated version of a paper by Farrant, McPhail and Berger here). In the end, one might conclude that the odd fear of some future libertarian authoritarianism is greater than concerns about the revelations of the past several years involving the targeted executions of U.S. citizens abroad, the extensive use of drones, and the NSA’s global surveillance efforts. Imagination trumps reality.

One can only hope against hope that the rally is a success and that the media’s obsession with the post mortems on the government shutdown and the daily fluctuations in the opinion polls will leave some space for a more significant debate about civil liberties, one that draws on the broadest coalition possible.

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On Saturday I moved with my family to Lebanon, New Hampshire. I am teaching for a year in the Government Department at Dartmouth College. Although my reasons for leaving my tenure-track job at Buffalo were several, I decided last year to apply almost exclusively to jobs in New England so that I could fulfill (early) my Free State Project commitment.

Fifty-nine people greeted us when we arrived at our new home, unloaded the truck in 20 minutes, and then held a party. The welcome we got exemplifies the reasons why we decided to take the risk of leaving a tenure-track job for a future in New Hampshire. Even though our decision may very well require a career change for me in a year’s time, we do not consider it to be a “sacrifice for the cause.” Our move is fundamentally self-interested.

The things that really matter in life are family, friends, community, a sense of purpose. Financial security is secondary. In the United States today, we enjoy unparalleled wealth, access to technologies inconceivable until just a few decades ago. There is much that we can give up financially while still enjoying a decent life.

We moved from a 3,000-square-foot house in Buffalo to a 1,100-square-foot apartment in Lebanon. We gave up our TV, our stereo system, and most of our furniture. Adjusting for cost of living and benefits, my real earnings have already declined significantly. The variance in our expected future earnings has increased dramatically. But my daughter also played in a river for the first time, throwing rocks and trying to catch tadpoles. We can walk to the

The view from our living room

The view from our living room

town green. You can see the stars at night and the hills of the Upper Connecticut River Valley during the day. Most importantly of all, we’re participating in a historic effort to create a society of free and responsible individuals, which would be an impossible dream almost anywhere else.

To be sure, we also left a few good friends in Buffalo, and that was hard. I understand why libertarians with strong local family and friend connections do not move to New Hampshire. But we didn’t have such long-term connections anywhere else, apart from those few good friends.

I also understand why libertarians who are promoting the cause in their own careers would see a career change and a move to New Hampshire as a step back. But most of what I have done as an academic does not promote liberty directly, and I have come to question seriously the (more…)

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The Free State Project’s Porcupine Freedom Festival was last week, and the media mentions have been trickling in. Unfortunately, I was not able to go due to scheduling conflicts, but the organizers claim, on the basis of 1,500 paid registrants, that over 1,700 people attended (including children). That makes it the biggest PorcFest ever, unsurprising considering an excellent lineup including David Friedman, Robert Murphy, Don Boudreaux, Michael Huemer, and many, many more. In addition, PorcFest’s “Agora Alley” has become (in)famous as a real-life example of a free-wheeling free market in action.

Here are some after-action reports I’ve been able to dig up:

Next year, I’m so there. And you should be too.

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I have great respect and (in many cases) affection for my friends at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians. But I am not a bleeding heart libertarian, and from the outset I have resisted its siren song, mostly over its endorsement of “social justice” as a moral and/or political ideal. Unlike Hayek, I do not think the concept is incoherent. But I think Hayek has a point, and my resistance to the concept I think tracks at least some of Hayek’s motivation. But that resistance is normative, rather than conceptual. Recent exchanges on BHL have helped me clarify my thinking about the point that concerns me.

Kevin Vallier posted this week on the topic, responding to challenges from David Friedman as to the cogency of the concept. The discussion that follows Kevin’s post is excellent, and I am highly sympathetic to many of those resisting Kevin’s analysis. However, I would mount an objection slightly different than those on offer there.

Start with a point of agreement. Kevin says,

I take it that the term “social justice” can be used to cover individual rights-violations. For instance, if John rapes Reba, he has committed a grave injustice, one that could be called a social injustice. However, this is not the conceptual home of the concept of social injustice.

He is surely right about this. Individual rights-violations are, by their nature, unjust. Since they are transactions between two individuals, they are also social, and we can, if we like, uselessly append “social” to our description of actions as unjust. If that is all “social injustice” means, there would be no quarrel here. As Kevin suggests, we need to look elsewhere for its “conceptual home.”

Kevin thinks that “conceptual home” is in the class of emergent properties. Here is his central claim:

Social injustice is an emergent property of certain kinds of social, moral and political practices. Let’s illustrate with the familiar example of institutional racism. I take it that an institution is racist insofar as it reliably outputs states of affairs where a racial group fails to receive its due based solely on the racial properties of its members. Thus, even if no one in the institution is racist, they participate in practices that result, say, in blacks having fewer opportunities than whites simply because they are black. In other words, the institutional rules operate such that unequal outcomes are caused primarily by racial differences, even if no one person is acting in a racist fashion. Institutional racism is a paradigmatic case of social injustice. It is an emergent property of a social institution that commits an injustice without any individual acting in an unjust fashion.

Emergent properties are an important class of properties, but Kevin’s proposal is unusual in deploying the concept in this way. Why? He is proposing that a normative property — social injustice — is emergent from non-normative properties (perhaps the distribution of “opportunities,” however those are measured). And this is curious. The typical deployment of the notion of emergent properties would, I think, involve the emergence of non-normative (let’s call them “natural”) properties from other natural properties. Many of the spontaneous orders we see in both natural and social science are of this sort. The structure of crystals is an emergent property in the sense that crystals have that structure because of other physical properties they have. Language-use is a property that humans have in virtue of various neurological and other biological properties we have. And so on. Nothing to see here. Emergence of normative properties from other normative properties is also, I’d think, unproblematic. That would be, for example, the liberal analysis of slavery. We see the large scale pattern of injustice as caused by an assortment of unjust individual attitudes, beliefs, and courses of conduct. Again, nothing to see here.

But the proposal that normative properties might emerge somehow from natural properties oughtn’t to be dismissed simply because it is unusual. If you work much with normative concepts, you become accustomed to the idea that things work differently when you are contending with reasons, norms, and the like rather than causes. If the world is a causal order, and it has normative properties, then somehow we have to end up with normative properties emerging from natural ones. The form of emergence that moral and other philosophers typically deploy is supervenience. Normative properties like goodness, rightness, and so on supervene on natural properties, in the sense (some sense; different theories give different accounts of this relation) that the normative properties occur somehow because the natural properties occur. If you are a hedonist, for example, you think that badness supervenes on pain, goodness on pleasure. Something (an act, a state of affairs) has the property of badness precisely because it also has the property of being painful.

And this gets us to what is interesting. Remember that, if the concept of social justice is going to be at all interesting, it cannot simply be redescribing the sort of injustice that occurs when individuals violate the rights of others. What does the social injustice supervene on? The crucial point is: whatever the answer to that question, it is not a property of individuals.

Is that a problem? I’m not sure. I am inclined to think that the essence of individualism at the heart of liberalism is a kind of moral individualism — the idea, roughly, that all sources of value, obligations, and so on are individuals. Does Kevin believe that? Here’s what he says:

I can’t speak for my co-bloggers, but from my vantage point libertarians all too often ignore social injustices because of their sometimes flat footed (dare I say “cartoon”?) moral individualism. I’m a moral individualist in the sense that I think injustices can only be done to individuals, families or to voluntary associations. In a real sense, I don’t think injustices can be committed against “Americans” or “blacks” understood as groups defined independently of their members. So traditional libertarians are right that emphasize that the idea of social justice can sometimes be deployed in inappropriately collectivist ways.

But social injustices can be committed independently of human design. That’s a significant claim that departs from many threads of libertarian thought popular today. And my view on the matter is one of the reasons I joined the blog.

How does the moral individualism Kevin endorses differ from “cartoon” moral individualism? I’m not sure.  Is it an aberration that in a previous paragraph he spoke of “a racial group failing to receive its due”? I think it is not an aberration, but a natural slide invited and made possible by adversion to social justice.

I believe (and I think Kevin believes) that groups are per se not due anything. There are certainly moral and political positions (positions worth engaging) that disagree. But these are certainly not within either the classical liberal or libertarian tradition, and they require a rejection of the moral individualism that I think is worth endorsing, and to which Kevin is paying lip service. And the issue here isn’t the defensibility of such a claim, but whether or not those committed to libertarian ideals and principles should embrace or reject the use of the concept of social justice.

Is this then just an unfortunate slip? The problem is, without the thought that the normative property (the social injustice) supervenes on facts about groups, rather than individuals, there is no injustice here to be found. And that’s just where the BHL’ers would like to be able to find injustice. It’s tempting to revert to the idea that the individuals in the groups in question suffer, say, from a deprivation of opportunities. But either those deprivations are by individuals, to individuals, in a way that violates the rights of the injured parties, or those are not. If they are, then we have plain old injustice, without a need to appeal to “social justice.” And if they aren’t, then it’s hard to see where the moral complaint is, nor what individuals are “committing” the social injustice. Here the view Kevin is proposing is trying to have it both ways. Skeptics about social justice think that is endemic to the concept.

It’s worth noting that in Rawls’ hands the problem has to be located in a different place. I can’t see that Rawls ever locates the injustice of social injustice in properties of groups. (Though groups figure into the specification of the remedy, in the form of the Difference Principle, I take this to be a feature of the solution to the problem, not part of the formulation of the normatively problematic state of affairs — the social injustice — itself.) In that sense, Rawls’ moral individualism is intact. To get to social injustice, as I understand him Rawls has to build the social properties at issue into the obligations of justice we have as individuals. That is, part of what it is for us to treat each other justly, as individuals, is on his view to establish and sustain social institutions with the properties called for by principles of justice. That way of conceiving of social justice has its own problems, not for this post (which is already too long as it is). Is it compatible with thinking that social injustice is an emergent property (to return to Kevin’s basic proposal). Perhaps. But if so the emergence is a 5th wheel: all the work in generating the social injustice is done by individuals failing, in effect, to act justly in establishing institutional arrangements that satisfy the principles of justice. I am skeptical that we do have obligations of justice of the sort that this interpretation of Rawls requires. One reason for doing so is that (like Nozick) I suspect that these obligations of justice are incompatible with obligations of justice I am much more confident we have toward each other (such as obligations generated by desert). That’s why I think there is something deeply problematic about the Rawlsian conception of social justice. Those reservations are not alleviated by recourse to thinking that social justice (or injustice) is somehow emergent.

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