Some dude posted this: On liberals, libertines, and libertarians
. My friend, Stephanie Carvin, pointed it out to me.
It's difficult to read nonsense. It's especially difficult to read nonsense interspersed with ad hominem's and other character-driven assumptions. It's as though accepting a particular political belief is a gateway and great way to understanding someone's character. It isn't that. It depends on why you hold the political belief that you do, not on the fact that you hold some particular belief. At any rate, this post is worth at least something of a response."What's a 'libertarian'?"
That's pretty easy. Someone who believes in small (sometimes no) government, and in individual freedom."I know plenty of liberals, and more than a few libertines, but not anyone who would describe themselves as a 'libertarian', nor indeed anyone who appears to have the accompanying Nozick-esque ideology even if they didn't describe themselves thus."
Hello, I'm a libertarian. But I don't hold to a Nozick-esque ideology or philosophy. And I also know plenty of liberals (both thoughtful and thoughtless), and a few libertines as well.You could retort that this is because I have a narrow circle of friends, which might be fair enough.
Yes, it looks like you do have a narrow circle of friends. Or you're not having political conversations with your friends. There are plenty of libertarians out there. Something like 10 to 20 per cent in English-speaking countries, if you trust polling data.On the other hand, one of the reasons I haven't come across any libertarians in my community may well be - if what they write is anything to go by - that libertarians don't seem to live in communities of any kind.
Oh, tut tut, nonsense. Libertarianism is a view about politics. It tells you what politicians and bureaucrats should or shouldn't do. It tells you nothing about what you should do. And it tells you nothing about the role of communities in social life.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, I was giving serious thought to writing my dissertation on communitarian libertarianism. Why's that? There's two reasons, actually. The first stems from my work on the economics of happiness. I wrote my Master's thesis on this topic. It turns out that, not to anyone's surprise, community life is just about the most important thing for your personal happiness. Engaging with others, having a wide circle of friends (and a few very close friends), participating in the community, and joining charitable and social organizations, is the best key to happiness we know about. Sex is good too. What we need to know is what set of policies are most conducive to community of the right sort? (We also need to know what set of policies are going to lead to the best outcomes for the poor, the indigent, and so on).
If you think that the government running a bunch of community projects will help, you are sadly misinformed. Take a good long look at the social capital literature. Putnam's fine (Bowling Alone, I mean). Then take a good long look at the relationship between government involvement in a particular community effort, and the impact this has on the actual interrelationships between people.
Of course, you might come to a different conclusion than me. Perhaps you will think that what I have to say is a bit simplistic, or that it overlooks some vital set of data and empirical stuff. That's fine. I'll state my hypothesis, which I use as an assumption in framing my political philosophy: When there is a genuine need in a community, and government is awfully small, people tend to get together with like-minded others, and form community groups to help assuage the problem. This was so true of early America, that Alexis De Toqueville's "Democracy in America" can be read as a story of community organizations forming out of need. If we could go back in time and count the number of daily interactions between people in early America, we would probably find that it is much higher than today.
If we could circle the globe and compare those countries where a community need is seen as an automatic reason for a new government program, and those countries where a community need is not seen as an automatic reason for some new government program, I will bet you many dollars or pounds or whatever your preferred currency is, that the latter countries have much more social capital and stronger community bonds than the former. Take me up on this bet. Do it! But careful. It's a suckers bet.
If we care about communities, we should restrict, not promote, government involvement in charities, service clubs, social housing projects, and so on. Of course we need to balance this against the likelihood of people getting what they need. If it turns out to be true that non-gov initiatives will not meet some need sufficiently, then that's a reason for a corporation like the government to get involved. But if we have good reason to believe that the need will be sufficiently met, then we should do what will simultaneously promote the benefits of community. And that's to take a libertarian attitude about these particular projects and programs.
The second is my long-standing frustration with what I think is the most enormous non sequitor in political philosophy. Otherwise bright philosophers make this mistake all the time. Consider: Suppose we have an ethical obligation to ensure that other persons are sufficiently well off. Suppose we are obligated to help the poor, the indigent, the starving, the disaffected. What follows? Think hard. Are you thinking yet? If you think it follows that the government should be in the business of fulfilling these obligations, you've missed a few premises, and have failed the test. You have failed it miserably.
Take this second test: Suppose it is established that human beings need (not want) food and shelter. It is not something we could do without. What follows, my friend? In particular, what follows about the role and function of government? If you answered, "uhm, nothing just yet. I need a few more premises." Then you get an "A" in good reasoning. If you answered "New Government Program!" Then you are an imbecile. Maybe imbecile is too strong. It probably is.
But don't worry. You're in excellent company. Just about everyone thinks that this follows. But it doesn't
. It's a non sequitor. I called it an enormous non sequitor. I called it this not because it is terribly obvious that it doesn't follow (although, when you think about it, it is terribly obvious), but because so many people are busy making this giant mistake.
When we talk about "our" ethical obligations, we can mean this in one of at least two ways. The first is to read "our" as a distributive, not collective, thing. Suppose we have five people. Me, you, Sally, Betty, and Sam. We can say that it is "our" responsibility to feed the hungry. Reading this as a distributive thing, this means that it is each of our responsibility to feed "the hungry" (not necessarily all of them, and the extent to which this is our responsibility is left unanalyzed for the sake of argument). I have this responsibility, so do you, so does Sally, Betty, and Sam. The second way of reading this is as a collective thing. Thus, Sally feeding the hungry satisfies our collective obligation to feed the hungry. "We" have fed the hungry when Sally has fed the hungry.
This is an important confusion. It is important because, supposing something like feeding the hungry is each of our responsibility, we are liable to feel satisfied that we have fulfilled our responsibility when somebody else has. We are liable to move from the distributive to the collective, and ignore the fact that we haven't fulfilled our responsibility at all. Fighting for a new government program is a way to shirk, not uphold, our ethical obligations. It's a way to avoid having to deal with the actual beneficiaries of the program. You can go to marbled and fancy government buildings, rather than to the corners of run-down neighbourhoods. You won't be on the hook for distributing the food, the money, the shelter. You can go home and feel satisfied that you're paying your taxes and, therefore, doing your part. But you're not. You're not, you're not, you're not. You are shirking
what you take to be an ethical responsibility and obligation. Go out and help, don't call your representative.
I don't really feel like getting into this much deeper. But it is hard to think of an institution that does more damage to community of the right sort than Parliament (or Congress, or whatever your official congregation of public speech-making is called). Let's get back to the dialectic:"...I suppose the blogosphere is a community of sorts and it's absolutely hoaching with them and I was wondering: how would I recognise one if I saw them in real life? I'm really not sure but if a regular trawl of the Land of Blog is anything to go by, I can guess at a sociological profile: libertarians, as far as one can tell, tend to be male rather than female; more likely to be without dependent children than with; more likely to have studied economics than history (are there any "libertarian historians"? Because history is full of bad news about the human condition); private or grammar educated rather than comp; relatively wealthy rather than relatively poor."
Ho-hum, what a bugaboo. Apart from the fringes, you can't tell them apart from ordinary folk. That's because libertarians are as ordinary as liberals and conservatives and libertines. You can focus on the fringe, if you'd like, and insist that we're all survivalists and readers of Ayn Rand. Or you can be charitable and not focus on the fringe. Because there are just as many crazy liberals (Rosie O'Donnell look-alikes with their concerted efforts to out-scream the opposition) and crazy conservatives (with their bibles and their fanatic aversion to accessories that do not include a cross), in roughly the same proportion.
More male than female? I'd be somewhat (but not very
) surprised if this were true. Think Ayn Rand, Carla Howell, Judith Jarvis Thomson, the first female vice presidential candidate to receive an electoral college vote, Isabel Paterson, Wendy McElroy, the iFeminists, Harriet Taylor (John Stuart Mill's wife, who, I contend, was the reason for "On Liberty" and "On the Subjection of Women," while "Utilitarianism" was more the work of Mill. This would explain the gap between the libertarian strain in the former two, and the possibly non-libertarian Utilitarianism), and so on. But I haven't yet seen the stats. And I'd like the stats.
Without dependent children? I see no reason to believe this. And my circle of friends includes many libertarian parents.
Economics over history? That sounds right. I agree. But hardly for the reasons you propose. History, just like reality, has a libertarian bias, I'm afraid. To say that it is full of bad stories is usually to be pointing to shitty governments, my friend. And if people are shitty, why would you want to give them all the guns and power? Seems crazy to me.
Private vs. public ("comp") education: I doubt it. Private schools are full of future politicians and high-ranking civil servants and lawyers and accountants. All of those groups have reason to be in favour of more, rather than less, gov. Oh, I went to gov-run schools all my life. Elementary, secondary, undergrad, first master's, second master's, and now PhD. All of them funded by the state.
Poor vs. wealthy. There are many wealthy libertarians. But the proportion is rather small compared to liberals and conservatives. If libertarians were wealthier, you'd see more libertarian stuff. But you don't. The think tank world is an outlier. The world world is full of rich folk who got rich from special licenses and favours from gov. Go over the Forbes 500. There might be, what, two or three libertarians? (Charles G. Koch, for instance, and the Koch family). But that is well below the rest of the American population. You should see between 50 and 60 libertarians on the list (if the proportion sticks). But you don't. Libertarians are mostly lower- to middle-class types.
"All of this may be a) inaccurate
(not all of it, but most of it),
(yup, it is that),"but I'm afraid without any corporeal contact of my own to counter this, at present my mental image of the average keyboard libertarian is of someone - the gorgeous Chris Dillow excepted - who is essentially a Tory who has extended the Thatcherite logic of free-markets beyond the shop-keeper and is up for an occasional line of coke and some free love, if only they could find themselves someone to have it with."
Hmmm.... Thanks for sharing your image of the libertarian. Perhaps this is a marketing failure on our part. Where's the libertarian PR department? We need more make up.As well as a) and b) this all might be c) irrelevant since were talking about differences in ideology here - the truth or otherwise of which is not dependent on the sociological profile of those who espouse it. So is a libertarian really just a liberal, only more so; merely a step further along a scale which takes as its starting point the idea that the sphere in which individuals should be able to make decisions without state interference should be as large as possible? Is it really just a difference in tone - or is there something more substantial?
Oh, good. Recognizing c) is a good sign of a coming argument.
Many paths lead to libertarian conclusions. You might think the following:
1. Individuals should be as free as possible, and therefore libertarianism is the right view about politics.
2. Politicians are just like the rest of us, and it's best if we didn't have all those guns and power, and therefore libertarianism is the right view about politics (only as a second-best outcome given the facts).
3. History demonstrates that government programs fail, or make things worse, or things would have been better without the state, in general, than with it, and so conclude that libertarianism is roughly the right view about politics ("roughly" because there will be exceptions, and again this is a second-best conclusion, given the facts).
4. We should strive for the best outcomes for most people in as much of a distributive fashion as possible, and a free market and liberty tends to that, so libertarianism is the right view about politics.
And so on.
1. is only the most prominent path. But it is hardly the only one.I'm not sure but I've a couple of thoughts. Karl Popper wrote that "the paradox of liberty is that it has to be limited in order to be enjoyed". Implicit in this - in Popper's whole thesis, I think - is a liberalism that accepts the need for the state as given. One, moreover, that extends beyond the narrow Nozickian property-rights preserving state. Liberals like this - like me - think that history shows Hobbes had something more than resembling a point when he talked about man in a "state of nature" - it's just that he failed to extend the logic of a need for restraint on government, as well as the governed.
I like that you cite Popper. The great comedic element in this is that Popper is more of a libertarian than a liberal. That's how I'd class him. But I'm not as narrow in my definition of "libertarian." I like to think of "libertarian" like we tend to think of "liberal" or "conservative." You needn't be Christian to be a conservative, and you needn't believe in gun control to be a liberal (think of Vermont. One of the least restrictive states when it comes to guns, and one of the most liberal). At any rate, Popper was enormously influenced by Hayek on his political views. One of his books includes a dedication to Hayek (The Poverty of Historicism). Both the poverty of historicism (where Popper argued that history cannot fit with the Marxist model, nor with any kind of historical determinism, because of the fundamental indeterminacy of future knowledge, and of innovation), and the Open Society and It's Enemies are best read as works conducive to libertarianism. It could be liberal too, but the choice of emphasis is revealing. Fighting the "collectivism" of Plato (I should point out that Popper's interpretation of Plato is terrible) and his ilk, and the "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" impulses of Marx, Hegel, and, again, Plato, are all themes the libertarians like to pounce on.
And then there's Hobbes. One of the greatest libertarians of our time, Jan Narveson, is Hobbesian through-and-through. Take a peek at his work. I must give you a nod for recognizing that the state needs governance too. Quis custodiet ipsos es custodes
, after all."Libertarians don't come from this starting point, I don't think. Rather, they give the impression - to me, anyway - of people who have surrendered the anarchist position very grudgingly and whose default position with regards to the state is that the validity of its very existence is something that requires continual justification."
Well, uhm, yeah. Duh. So here we have a bunch of guys who can tell the rest of us what to do, and they've got guns, and they can lock us up. What do you think? Do you think they need "constant justification" or should we just give them carte blanche? You needn't be a deep thinker to give the edge to the libertarians on this one..."Further, the broad church of liberalism has historically allowed for the possibility - indeed the certitude - that there are occasions where we can achieve more collectively than we could as individuals. Libertarians, in contrast, are at their most generous when they treat this idea with extreme scepticism."
Uh, oh. Go scroll back up. I think you have failed a crucial test. Tell me, we can grow more food collectively, than individually. True, right? So what follows? If you say "nothing," you get a cookie! If you say "we need a government agriculture program," you get held up a year. Agriculture is
run collectively, although not by the government. Every business on the planet is run collectively, but not always by the government. To make a pencil, so many people need to work in concert. That's the parable of the bees, my friend. Libertarians are at their most ludicrous if they deny this. And there are those that deny this. Screw em. Focus your argument on the ones that get this right, on the best of them."This can be seen, I think, in their approach to education - as can be witnessed in this frankly appalling piece about the lessons that can be drawn about compulsory education from the recent university massacre in Virginia. There's something absolutist about all this. It is impossible for the libertarian to concede that the problem may have arisen due to lack of compulsion - i.e. the failure of the American republic to compel its citizens to disarm - so instead the narrative becomes one of the problems of compulsion, in this case with regards to schooling."
Yes, that may
have been the problem. I don't think so, but I don't blame anyone for thinking this."School for these is somewhere where you are oppressed, denied your individuality, and indoctrinated. These things, of course, can and do happen in our school system. But their analysis is for me so heart-breakingly monist. Apparently missing for them (maybe not, perhaps they've just forgotten) is the experience of a place where you might have been bored most of the time, you might have resented your teachers and the uniform they made you wear - but it was still a place where you learned stuff, waded through tedious lessons in order to get the qualifications to do what you really wanted to do, had a laugh, made friends you've kept until this day - the sort of people you got drunk with for the first time, maybe took some drugs, maybe even met a future partner - or if not perhaps someone you lost your virginity to?"
Oh, yeah, you bet. But can't school be all of these things, and fun
? It can be, it can. Let me say something crazy: Maybe schools shouldn't be a place where civil servants file kids into desks, give them bureaucratic nonsense work, and so on. Maybe schools should be varied, diverse, catering to what the kids want, and, here comes the craziest thing I will say in my response; cater to the parents, rather than the administrators. Community schools do this, gov-run institutions generally don't (there are exceptions, and good for those exceptions). (Hey, did you see what I did there? "Community" schools
! Where parents and teachers and students get together
. Where they work together.
Where they are face-to-face
and have real, genuine interaction
. That's a community. And that's the vast, overwhelming, teetering on the brink of total and absolute, case in non-gov schools than in gov schools. The stats will bear this out. They will, they will. The stats do bear this out. They do, they do.)
If you want community, start saving money now so you can send your kid to a community school. Because those schools beat gov-run institutions into the ground when it comes to community."The kind of experiences, in other words, that are the stuff of communities - the sort of communities that the average libertarian gives the impression of having never lived in. All this may well be either inaccurately or unjustifiably personal, for all I know - but what prompted these thoughts was this: Chris Dillow, in this post, made a reference to an "area where libertarianism meets Marxism." He was talking about education but I went off in a tangent. I'm not sure the area where Marxism meets libertarianism is a particularly large one, or a particularly comfortable one. Marx wrote that it is man's social being that forms his consciousness. It's obviously not what he was talking about but I was wondering: would libertarians who favour, for example, privatizing the health service have a slightly different take - a different consciousness, you could say - if they'd had the experience of someone they loved being saved from disease, disfigurement or death because of the existence of this 'Stalinist' NHS? Perhaps they've had such an experience and confirm that they would not - but I doubt it."
If you want community, consider libertarianism. Don't take up the "individualist" attitude or credo that many libertarians take up (I don't).
I suspect that you are running into a terrible sample bias. Instead of taking a look at those people who have faced the NHS only, or those kids who went to gov-run schools only, ask those who had experience with both the gov stuff and the community-provided stuff. (Ha! I did it again. And it fits, damnit, it fits.)
Of course, if you're comparing some health care system with none, or some school with none, or some government with the state of nature, then you'll find that just about anything is better than nothing. But how about comparing the real-world alternatives, and not merely the all-or-nothing hobgoblin you put up as proof positive. I'll bet you dollars to Tim Horton's doughnuts (donuts, if you prefer) that people who have been witness to both prefer the stuff the community doles out to the stuff your local Ministry of Health, Education, and Control provides.
Hugs and kisses and liberty, my man. And say "no" to the non sequitor.
Labels: Libertarianism, non sequitor