If you read the Western Standard Shotgun blog, and have been busy reading The Volunteer for a bit, you might know that there’s something peculiar happening in libertarian circles. There’s something of a growing movement afoot, a new kind of fusionism, and a surprising disentangling of former alliances.
The new fusionism is liberal & libertarian. The old alliance was conservative & libertarian.
It started, more or less, with a seminal article by Brink Lindsay, formerly of the Cato Institute, called “Liberaltarians”. In it, Lindsay argued for a new alliance between liberals and libertarians, and urged the further dissolution of the old alliance between traditionalists and libertarians.
The article caused something of a stir after its publication in the New Republic. Slowly, others joined the movement, or came out of the closet as having always been liberal in cultural attitudes, and preferring standard liberal liberties — like freedom of speech & civil liberties & opposition to the war on drugs — over tax cuts and union busting. Foremost amongst these early adopters was Will Wilkinson, also formerly of the Cato Institute and now, amongst other gigs and duties, a blogger for The Economist.
Terrence, myself, and Mike were amongst the early adopters. While blogging at the Shotgun, all three of us faced grumpy commenters. The Shotgun had kept a strong and outspoken following from traditionalists, conservatives, and people who just hated Marc “Prince of Pot” Emery (even though Emery was a contributor to the Western Standard). Pushing for liberal cultural attitudes, gay marriage, and a generalized hostility to all wars (including Iraq and “terror”) & militarism, meant furious denunciation from three or four tireless keyboard warriors who produced twelve words for every one of ours. We got tired of trying to alter the brand to be more open to a variety of libertarians, rather than just the old fusionist alliance, and started this blog instead.
Most recently, and most excitingly, a group of academics the three of us respect a great deal have started an academic blog called “Bleeding heart libertarians.” That blog is full of young intellectuals who are trying to break the association of libertarianism with natural rights theories, and with traditionalist attitudes.
Libertarianism is not what too many think it is. As a political philosophy, it insists on the “what” and not the “why.” The what is the libertarian set of political institutions. Whatever your reasons for endorsing that particular set, you count as a libertarian just in case you support those institutions. Libertarianism as a political morality is what you think it is. It is the belief in natural rights theory, in Lockean and Randian first principles (Rand is a teleological libertarian, not a natural rights theorist, by the way). But the difference means that you can count as a libertarian political philosopher, while being committed to non-Randian and non-natural rights values or first principles.
I teach Modern Political Ideologies in the Political Science department this semester. It’s given me an opportunity to get clearer on a few issues, and to construct a rubric that makes more sense of political philosophies. While I’m still working on this model, here’s the simple sketch:
First, we need to figure out what your values are. What are your axiological commitments? Do you privilege autonomy over well-being or vice versa? Do you believe in “meaningful” autonomy? Do you think agreement grounds obligations? Are you a pluralist about values? Are you a natural rights theorist (and which rights are natural, on your view)? Are you committed to equality? Are you more concerned with certain virtues? And so on.
Second, we need to know what your beliefs are with respect to empirical facts. Do you think the free and open market will improve well-being? Will it promote the right kind of autonomy? Is it naive for us to think that people will provide sufficient voluntary aid for morally urgent needs? And so on.
Usually, it’s a combination of values and empirical beliefs that yields your political philosophy. I say “usually” because there are certain values that analytically lead to certain political philosophies. For example, if you’re a particular kind of natural rights theorist — Robert Nozick, for example — then a political philosophy follows without any need for empirical analysis. Some values provide an analytic bridge between the “ought/state gap” — the gap between what we ought to do, and what political institutions we should support. It’s the ought/state gap that an emphasis on values and empirical facts highlights.
For most values, however, the assumption that the state ought to promote those requires a further argument. To believe that well-being is our highest moral value tells us little to nothing about what kind of political institutions we ought to have. To get to that conclusion we need to know what will happen given this or that set of political institutions. We need empirical commitments to bridge the gap between our values and the set of political institutions best able to realize or promote those values.
So suppose you pick distinctly liberal values. Suppose you agree with Rawls that a great deal of the social positions that many of us hold have too much to do with winning the birth lottery, and too little to do with choices that we make. Suppose you think that what really matters are the prospects of the worst-off group of people. Suppose you agree that a theory of justice must be ambition-sensitive, but endowment-insensitive. Or suppose you agree with Dworkin that what really matters is “meaningful” autonomy.
Terrence has come up with a cute story: If you’re born at the bottom of a well, and you need a ladder to get out of that well, it would be madness for a libertarian to come along and say to you, at the bottom of the well, “well, there’s at least one good thing about your predicament; at least you are politically free!” It would be madness because, at the bottom of a well, who could possibly give a shit about political freedom? All that matters are ladders. Neutrality on the good life is worthless if you can’t even begin to live anything resembling a worthwhile life at all. While it would be madness to point to political freedoms in that context, it would be silly and daft to point out to the man in the well that it wasn’t your fault that he was born there. True, it wasn’t your fault, but don’t you feel the pull of having to do something to help out? Don’t you think that providing ladders is morally obligatory?
Suppose you find yourself standing next to a baby drowning in a puddle. It’s true that you didn’t put the baby there, and it’s true that it ain’t your fault that the baby is face-down in a puddle. And it may be true that it’s the parents’ responsibility to pull their own babies out of puddles. But all of that is palpably irrelevant. To leave the baby in the puddle is to shirk a genuine moral responsibility. Even if it means your pants will get dirty, you simply have to pull the baby out of the puddle. Not to do so is to be blameworthy. It’s not supererogatory, it’s obligatory.
Of course, if there were thousands of babies face-down in puddles, we couldn’t expect you to run around pulling all of them out. The point of the above examples is that it would be easy, and consistent with your leading a life of your choosing, that you put in some effort to get a ladder, and some effort to pull a few babies from puddles. Not so much effort that your life becomes effectively dedicated to the provision of ladders and the removal of face-down babies from puddles.
Those are liberal commitments to “social justice” (I hate that label as much as you probably do, but I think you get my meaning here). But notice that those commitments do not analytically lead to anything resembling a modern welfare-state. To get there, you need to believe not only in the moral urgency of getting babies out of puddles and providing ladders, you need to also believe that the most effective way to do those things is through certain state institutions. But that’s controversial. True, it’s not controversial in any ordinary sense. If you polled, as I have many times, a group of people, they’ll tell you that of course you would need some kind of welfare state to get us there. Of course you would. The market’s not going to provide the ladders, and you and I won’t, unless we’re compelled, pull nearly enough babies from their puddly doom.
But it is controversial if you have some knowledge of public choice economics, and economics in general. Politicians aren’t going to set up the right institutions unless those institutions will get them hired (elected). But if we are willing to elect someone to make us pull babies out of puddles, that suggests that that’s what we’d do, voluntarily. It suggests it, it doesn’t require it. Sometimes, we need strategies to overcome our laziness and failure to do what we know we ought to do — and sometimes the best strategies are pre-commitment strategies where we figure out how to compel ourselves to do what we know, in more reflective moments, we ought to. And while some people believe that the ballot box encourages the right kind of reflective thinking, the truth is that we really don’t take that opportunity to think reflectively. We vote for whoever will get us the goods. Teachers vote for the candidates that will give teachers more money, CEOs will vote for the candidates that will lower their taxes and put up barriers to competition, soccer moms will vote for the candidates that will most effectively strip us of a bevy of freedoms because of their massively exaggerated sense of danger to their children, and so on. People vote their interests. Politicians do whatever they need to do to get re-elected. And very little about politics has to do with ladders and pulling babies out of puddles. It’s about other things.
Additionally, political institutions are not free. To set up an institution to provide ladders is to provide ladders inefficiently. We’ll need to pay people to look for folks born in wells, we’ll need to pay people to enforce the provision of ladders, we’ll need to pay people to do a whole bevy of things required by political institutions, etc., etc. There’s also the “price” of non-voluntarism, and the “price” of not giving people an opportunity to do the right thing voluntarily. Those are all costs of a political system geared towards doing for us what we, each of us, ought to do.
Let me finish on this note: While I share liberal value commitments, I have certain empirical beliefs that lead me to prefer the libertarian set of political institutions. But it’s not for any natural rights reasons, nor for any Randian reasons. It’s all about improving the well-being of people in general (regardless of their country of birth), and getting resources into the hands of those who desperately need them. Those ends are better served by the free and open market. Those ends are better served by a tiny, tiny government, limited in scope. That’s what I really believe.
And as an interim step, I’m in favour of moving towards a more Swiss-style, or Scandinavian state. Big welfare state, incredible economic and civil liberties. No massive military spending, nor any kind of foreign interventionism worth speaking about. A deep secularism, and a liberal culture that promotes life experiments, and communality. Shit, if we could get that, I’d consider anything else gravy. But we don’t have that. We have militarism, bans on lightbulbs, G20 cops getting away with breaking the law, gays who are frowned upon, an attitude of hostility to foreigners and immigrants, and a generalized love of all things state. And, man, that sucks.
My name is Peter, and I’m a bleeding heart libertarian.
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