Posts Tagged ‘Libertarianism’

At the Daily Beast, Keli Goff has a piece on “Why Blacks Aren’t Libertarians.” In fact, however, she may be a libertarian; at least, nothing in this piece shows why she cannot be. However, she definitely rejects a kind of dogmatic, absolutist libertarianism that she has encountered – and reasonably so, in my view. Here is the rub:

I presented the caller with the same hypothetical I do to so many of my self-professed libertarian friends: I’m injured in a plane or car crash. There is one hospital located in the town in which the crash has taken place. Do you believe the hospital has a right to refuse to treat me on the basis of race, and that the government has no moral or legal imperative to require the hospital to treat me?

One can make a convincing argument that a florist refusing to provide flowers to a same-sex wedding, or an upscale restaurant not welcoming African Americans, aren’t really major civil rights issues. (Frankly, in this day and age, if a restaurant refused to serve me I might use the power of the Internet to help put it out of business, but I wouldn’t see the point in suing someone to serve me when there are plenty of other dining options.) But when it comes to issues like government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans, there is more at stake.

I would say that the hospital has a legally enforceable duty to accept anyone at imminent risk of death or injury. This is the “safe harbor” exception to the right to exclude that constitutes part of the bundle of private property rights. The safe harbor exception holds that in cases of dire emergency, you lose the right to exclude others from access to your property.

There are at least two important categories of cases here. One consists of cases in which there is no time to obtain consent: my wife is suffering a heart attack, and to save her I have to break into a locked building and take out its defibrillator. We should be able to assume consent in many cases when it is costly to obtain an answer from the property owner, and the foreseeable costs to the property owner are nil (e.g., I will compensate for any damage I cause).

Another category consists of cases in which original appropriation ends up leading to a monopoly, which if exploited could cause severe harm. One such example is Bill Bradford’s old chestnut: you fall out of an apartment window and on the way down grab a flagpole; the owner of the flagpole leans out and demands, “Let go!” Obviously, you have no obligation to let go. Robert Nozick gave an example of appropriating an oasis in the middle of the desert and demanding all the worldly goods of those who pass by in dire thirst.

So it seems clear to me that the hospital example fits into the latter category. If you’re in a life-or-death situation, you must be given access to the hospital. Now, that doesn’t mean you could conscript (enslave) a person to perform surgery on you – the right to exclude from one’s own body admits of no exceptions. And in extremely rare cases, a free society might therefore result in people’s avoidable deaths from lack of care – but of course that sort of thing happens now, all too often.

Now, I don’t know what Ms. Goff means by “government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans,” but if she means large bureaucracies that provide these services at immense taxpayer cost on an ongoing basis, then she is indeed not a libertarian, as libertarians would not support that agenda. But neither does such an expansive government role in those industries follow from the emergency exception to the right to exclude just explored.

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You have to admire the sheer gall of a man who defends compulsory national service on libertarian grounds. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry does so in this month’s Cato Unbound. What really got my attention was this bit:

Libertarians think it’s legitimate for the state to use violence to take people’s money. If you don’t think taxation is legitimate, you are an anarchist, not a libertarian.

Well, military service is a form of in-kind taxation. Money is time. That’s what it is. When I buy a loaf of bread, I exchange a little bit of my time for a little bit of the baker’s time.

Perhaps it’s only legitimate for the state to take our time in the form of money and not in its original form, but we know that it’s not true.

Oh really?! When libertarianism really emerged as a distinct political force in the 1970s, it was thought that libertarianism excluded taxation that was not consented to (so homeowners’ association fees would be fine, for instance). The Libertarian Party platform long called for the abolition of taxation (and may still). Indeed, Robert Nozick argued that taxation is wrong for the same reason that slavery (“compulsory service”) is wrong. (Not, note, that taxation is morally equivalent to slavery or a species of slavery.) Gobry seems to accept Nozick’s claim that if slavery is always wrong, taxation is also always wrong, but by denying the consequent, is able to deny the antecedent.

But the bottom line is that you don’t have to be an anarchist to think that non-consented-to taxation is always impermissible.

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Last time I was here, I had a lot of fun teasing American libertarian readers, at least until the earthquake brought my guest blogging to an abrupt halt.

Support for liberty is a lot like support for GMO-free food. If you survey people, they’ll tell you how much they love it. They might even tell you it’s the most important thing in the world for them. But make them pay $0.50 extra to have it and they’ll choose the next product on the shelf. A few pay extra for the GMO-free tags, but if you’d probably be disappointed if you launched a GMO-free brand based on a survey of how much people claimed to hate genetically modified foods.

Jason Sorens and William Ruger have done great work in showing the substantial differences in experienced freedom across the 50 US States. A lot of libertarians live in New York; New York tends to come last in these surveys. Moving someplace that doesn’t keep trying to ban large sodas would mean giving up easy access to Broadway shows. It’s fine to be a pluralist and to weigh Broadway shows against personal liberties in some great personal utilitarian calculus, but it’s not exactly consistent with ‘Live Free or Die’ rhetoric.*

Absolute differences across American states are perhaps not large enough to make it worth moving. But if that’s the case, what are we to make of libertarian activism in the less-free states? It’s exceptionally unlikely that even the most effective activist in New York could move the state more than a point or two in the ordinal rankings, but that same person could take an oil job in North Dakota and move from worst to first while working there to help make North Dakota even better.

I’ve also argued, and often, that American libertarians should consider moving to New Zealand, which ranks first in the worldwide index weighing civil and economic freedoms. Why not choose to live free, or as free as is possible in the current world?

The Honours thesis I’m supervising this year will examine the price of liberty. The international ranking above gives a nice cross-sectional snapshot of differences in liberty across countries. Some of the measures can be extended backward in time. My student, Chris Read, is going to add these measures to international migration data to estimate the elasticity of migration flows to measured liberty and compare that elasticity to things like expected income differences across countries. Most people are messy pluralists; I’m really curious to see how things here pan out. Hopefully by the end of it, we’ll be able to say “A unit increase in civil liberties, all else equal, has about the same effect on inbound migration as a $X increase in median income.” That X will be close to a revealed preference measure of the price of freedom.

Later this week, I’ll post reassessing some of my Kiwi-enthusiasm in light of the post-earthquake policy experience. I’ve been pretty disappointed with how things here have panned out. We are not as far outside of the asylum as I had thought.

* I count myself as a messy pluralist of this sort too; I’m not trying to disparage it! Freedom matters, other stuff matters too.

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Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there have been some interesting posts recently on moralized and non-moralized conceptions of freedom. Jason Brennan says defining liberty to mean only negative liberty is “linguistic revisionism” without philosophic import. He then makes the case that bleeding-heart libertarianism (or Rawlsianism or various other non-traditionally-libertarian conceptions of property rights) does not necessarily violate the “non-aggression axiom.” Finally, he argues against moralized conceptions of freedom. I agree with the first two posts but not the last one.

It’s true that people use “freedom” to mean different things. Hobbes infamously defined it as the absence of physical constraint. Jason prefers something like “ability to realize one’s ends.” Both of these definitions are non-moralized. As Jason makes clear, positive liberty is not only not good by definition, it is not always good. My freedom to swing my fist into your nose unprovoked does not deserve respect — but it’s still freedom, in this non-moralized sense.

Now, Jason is absolutely right that nothing substantive turns on how we define our terms. He’s also right that simply defining freedom as justice (that which is, in the final analysis, right) abuses ordinary language and is tautological. On the other hand, I will note a tension between the claim that positive liberty is not always good and this claim:

The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

But if positive liberty is not only not good-by-definition but is also not good-by-inference, then the mere fact that a system tends to promote positive liberty is not a point in that system’s favor. The fact that system X makes it easy for people to swing their fists into other people’s faces whenever they want, thus helping them achieve their ends, is not a point in favor of the justice of system X. Now, the claim might be that swinging fists into people’s faces hurts the positive liberty of those victims, and I agree — but I don’t agree that we can simply sum up positive liberties across people and truthfully say that everyone ought to try to maximize that sum. That’s a controversial moral claim. Indeed, Matt Zwolinski refutes the view strongly here, and even says, “No serious libertarian intellectuals think about libertarianism in terms of maximizing liberty.” I don’t know how this statement squares with what Jason says he and David Schmidtz are arguing about how we ought to evaluate the regime of negative liberty.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can rule out all moralized conceptions of freedom as tautological. People in ordinary language use freedom in a moralized but non-tautological sense all the time. When someone says, “I can say what I want, it’s a free country,” she’s not saying, “It’s a country where I can realize my ends.” She’s saying something like, “In this country, we are not supposed to be subject to the arbitrary domination of others’ wills.” Freedom as non-domination means a great deal to people, arguably more than the mere ability to realize one’s own ends. The reason slavery is so repugnant is not really that it makes the slave unhappy, but that it enshrines an extreme form of inequality and domination. (I’m making a substantive, controversial moral claim here.)

But freedom as non-domination is also not the whole of justice. Marxists like G.A. Cohen arguably accept non-domination just as much as libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard. They just disagree about the proper conception of property rights, which also belongs to the domain of justice. Now, if you are persuaded about the libertarian account of property rights, then a Marxist regime imposed without consent looks like unjust domination, un-freedom. Still, even if we read back into “freedom” claims about justice, freedom-as-non-domination is not tautological: it doesn’t simply define freedom as justice. Yet it is a moralized conception of freedom common in everyday discourse.


Jason Brennan responds by e-mail:

Thanks for posting that. Does this clear up things?

1. I don’t literally mean that positive liberty is always good, but rather that it tends to be good and tends to be worth promoting. Schmidtz and I talk at some length in BHOL about how there’s not clear measure of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good estimates. If people are living longer, have more options, have more money, have more technology, etc, they will usually have more positive liberty.

2. I prefer to use non-moralized definitions of liberty: Neg lib = absence of obstacles, pos lib = power or capacity. But Schmidtz and I note that in common language, we often mean much more specific ideas when we use the terms “liberty” or “freedom”. If someone says, “X is a free country,” we assume she means they protect a wide range of negative liberties. My raise gave me the freedom to enjoy life, we assume she means positive liberty as capacity/power. And so on.

Schmidtz and I would agree with Matt Z and Nozick that negative rights are side constraints–we shouldn’t have a utilitarianism of rights. But negative and positive liberty are different. Negative liberty first and foremost should be respected, and then promoted. Positive liberty is to be promoted (when it’s good, and if doing so is consistent with our rights).

My response to Jason:

Thanks for the response. It clarifies a great deal. I clearly misread your position on positive freedom. I can’t quarrel with your description of the conceptual landscape below. Substantively, too, we’re not far apart, though I don’t think it’s generally morally impermissible to refrain from promoting the positive liberty of humanity in general (for instance, in order to focus on one’s own life projects).

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In case you haven’t heard, libertarians on the ‘Net have been having another one of those more-heating-than-enlightening internecine debates, this one sparked by a video by Julie Borowski on why there aren’t more libertarian women. Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz responded on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, accusing Ms. Borowski of “slut shaming” and generally denigrating women by assailing the consumerism and sex obsessions of certain women’s magazines. Tom Woods slapped back in defense of the original video, and Cathy Reisenwitz made a video response celebrating “sex, butts, and orgasms” as part and parcel of libertarianism (HT: Spatial Orientation).

When will libertarians learn that “libertinism” (do whatever you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone else, whether shooting up heroin or engaging in casual sex) is not in any way logically implied by “libertarianism,” a political theory of robust individual rights and a limited state? Supporting adults’ right to engage in casual, recreational, voluntary sex has precisely nothing to do with judging that behavior to be wise or even morally justified. Libertinism implies sexual libertarianism, but the converse is false.

In addition, castigating supporters of traditional sexual mores as “slut shamers” (whatever that means) seems no more likely to win converts to libertarianism than was Ms. Borowski’s generalization that women are captives to popular culture.

Libertarians, just like everyone else, can and should debate the ethics and prudential value of sexual relationships of various kinds — and for what it’s worth, my views are probably more liberal than Ms. Borowski’s on those questions — but they must not denigrate those who disagree as themselves morally suspect.

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They’re riding high in the polls, passing the Liberal Democrats in some of them, but is the United Kingdom Independence Party philosophically libertarian? Alex Massie says no. Ed West says yes.

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At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Kevin Vallier has an interesting piece on the failure of “Enlightenment libertarianism” and the case for “post-Enlightenment libertarianism.” While I agree fully with Dr. Vallier’s critique of libertarian dogmatism in the Randian and Rothbardian modes, I have considerably more difficulty with the public-reason liberalism he associates with “post-Enlightenment” thinking.

You can’t prove a complete political or moral philosophy apodictically from self-evident axioms. That much is obvious. Somewhere along the way, you are going to have to make contestable assumptions. What Rand, Rothbard, and deductivist dogmatists of all stripes forget is a basic Humean (Enlightenment thinker!) humility about what reason is really good for. Reason helps us check whether arguments are valid, following inevitably from their premises, and whether premises are more or less likely to be true, by matching them against our observations of the external world or our internal moral compass (intuition). But any set of statements that is self-evidently or necessarily true is not going to have much substantive import or be widely applicable to the world we experience. The role of moral and political philosophy should therefore be to make clear the assumptions on which different normative judgments must rest and to assess the plausibility of those assumptions. Like any other political philosophy, libertarianism rests on contestable assumptions — ones I happen to regard as fairly plausible, but contestable nevertheless.

But what about “public reason” methodology — does that allow us a way out of the limitations inherent to intuition and deduction? As Dr. Vallier puts it: “The post-Enlightenment view still aspires to show that our diverse reasoning can lead us to converge on public principles that protect human freedom, but its aspirations are chastened. The fact of reasonable pluralism explains why many liberals have become public reason liberals, because treating others as free and equal requires admitting that the free use of practical reason leads in many different directions.”

As someone who occasionally reads contemporary political philosophy but is far from an expert, my novice’s take is that public-reason liberalism does not give us much purchase on controversial moral questions in Western societies. To the extent that public-reason philosophers are merely making modus vivendi, Augsburg-style arguments for liberalism, those arguments are potentially valuable as far as they go, but they cannot go far. Of course, public-reason theorists don’t think they are making mere modus vivendi arguments. But the more they diverge from mere modus vivendi argument (which has to be guided by empirical research, I might add), the more they tread into controversial moral territory of the “bad, old Enlightenment” rationality.

Take Rawls’ Political Liberalism for example. It’s been over a decade since I’ve read it, but I recall finding it far less persuasive than A Theory of Justice. Rawls, you change your methodology radically and just happen to end up reaching almost exactly the same conclusions (albeit with less scope for liberty)? Come on! There seem to be numerous controversial moral assumptions sneaked into his argument despite the overt concern for overlapping consensus among moral communities that radically disagree. Rawls’ theory of justice couldn’t even find overlapping consensus among the members of his own department.

So it seems to me we are stuck with the bad, old way of reasoning because there is no alternative. But certainly a little humility and open-mindedness are in order.

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