July 22, 2001You: a lefty/liberal/progressive intellectual, without a clue as to what libertarians are about, nor a care about their philosophy, since the odds that you're going to be "converted" are less that that of Bush Jr's shot at re-election.
Nevertheless you've got a certain perverse interest in figuring out what kind of people libertarians are, if only on the "know thy enemy" principle.
And me: I'm here to help you out. Think of me as a lapsed libertarian, if that helps -- I'm not sure if I was ever really sworn to the faith, nor am I completely against it now, but maybe the "once with them, now against them" model is close enough.
First off, there are a couple of barriers to understanding you need to overcome. One trouble is that there are a bunch of conservatives around who talk a libertarian line when convenient (since they don't have much of a line of their own). The key difference between "conservative libertarians" and actual ones is the way the conservatives quietly slink away from the full implications of what they're saying. Compare Rush Limbaugh on the subject of the right of responsible adults to smoke tobacco, vs the right to smoke marijuana. A real libertarian is likely to have the opposite problem and argue that all drugs should be available without restriction, including, for example, antibiotics.
There's a Noam Chomsky rap titled "Free Market Fantasies" that would more accurately be called "Free Market Lies": Chomsky is almost exclusively talking about conservatives. (Your true Libertarian, on the other hand, is a free market fantasist par excellance...)
The other barrier you need to get past is a tendency to question the motives of anyone you disagree with. When you hear someone arguing a line that seems to be of benefit to industry, your first assumption is probably corruption: "there must be some financial connection here, who's paying this guy off?"
This may be a fair rule of thumb in many cases, but it fails where libertarians are concerned. They really are idealists of a sort, and they're almost always arguing from principle. In fact, they like to think that they are the only people around who really do believe in having principles.
Libertarians really think it's possible to come up with a grand system of a few simple rules that covers every real world case of any importance. And they believe that they're damn close to having that system figured out.
In comparison, almost everyone else is some form of pragmatist: "The world is complex. Every issue must be decided on a case-by-case basis. The best you can do is just try do what seems right at the moment." Most Americans are schooled in the dangers of fanaticism, and take the virtue of compromise as their only truism.
This, in itself is an interesting subject to discuss, and the libertarians have some interesting points: Is the world too complex to possibly formulate a general set of principles? The libertarian answer is that it is because the world is so complex that simple principles are necessary: no one is smart enough to constantly reinvent their ethics on-the-fly, without error. Without a strong set of principles, you become an easily manipulated slave of circumstance, a sucker for any nice-sounding line of rhetoric.
The difficulty is when you get down to actually choosing those principles. Have the libertarians succeeded in coming up with a universal ethics? I would say "not really" (and you would probably say "hell, no").
So what's their central principle? "The freedom of the individual" is the flag that they wave, usually stated something like "People have a right to be free to do what they choose, unless they interfere with someone else's right." Or alternately "You should not resort to force, except in response to force", often called the "non-aggression principle", or NAP.
At some point, you may have heard a dialog like this one:
'TARIAN: Taxation is theft. You have no right to take resources from someone against their will, even for ostensibly "good causes". Individual freedom must be defended -- 'RAL: What about freedom from starvation?at which point the 'TARIAN will probably start sputtering about equality of opportunity vs. equality of result, or perhaps economic efficiency and unintended consequences, or something like that, but let's drop it there for now, because the point that I want to make is that clearly it isn't enough to assert the primacy of freedom, you also need a certain conception of what freedom means.
So that one, simple, central principle isn't all that simple, and it's clearly not self-evident to everyone, or else the above dialog wouldn't happen over and over again.
So, why should you pick the libertarian version of freedom as the center of your ethical universe? There are two different answers popular amongst the 'Tarians. Essentially it's deduction vs induction.
You can assert that the "non-aggression principle" is derivable from some other principle (usually something about "natural rights"), or you can argue that it just "works better": we should agree to live according to this principle because of the consequences of doing so are superior to all other choices.
My personal prejudice is that the "consequentialists" are closest to the mark (and in fact, if someone starts talking to you about "natural rights", I you should stick your fingers in both ears and hum really loudly... the phrase "natural rights" is the kind of noise closet Christians make when trying really hard not to say "God-given rights").
But there are some obvious problems with being a principled consequentialist. Your inviolate principle is supported only by an inductive argument, which means that there's always room to argue that you haven't considered the right examples, or that you've interpreted the data wrong, or perhaps your inferences only apply to past cases, but not to present or future cases, and so on...
The problem that comes up is that the real world is a mess of conflicting, overlapping causes and results, and getting a clear impression of the influence of government or market is much like interpreting a Rorschach blot.
The true libertarian has no trouble finding a government program that causes or exacerbates any social ill you can name.
And the true libertarian has no trouble finding a rationale for claiming that every function of the market has actually worked out for the best, no matter how insane it appears at first glance.
Though here, "the best" means the optimum, not the ideal. Maybe that's a source of confusion, too... Libertarians are idealists that don't believe that they're ideals will ever result in an ideal world: the libertarian scenario is just presumed to be better than the results of any competing set of ideas.
This is a valuable defensive meme for any meme-complex. For the Christian, the existence of both an omnipotent benevolent deity and evil in the world is a severe problem that must be resolved. Libertarians have no similar difficulty: the Market may be their god, but it is not "omni-" anything (perhaps "maxi-" describes it best). The Market is not presumed to function perfectly smoothly, and any negative outcome of market forces can be shrugged off... and Libertarians are very good at shrugging. "This problem isn't really as bad as that, you've interpreted it wrong. It's just a temporary condition, anyway. Any attempt to 'fix' it would probably have even worse results. Just deal with it: this kind of difficulty is the price of freedom."
So there you have it. In a nutshell, the confusion is that while at first glance a libertarian may sound like a corporate PR flack, closer inspection reveals symptoms a little closer to that of a religious fanatic.
But what's the appeal of this particular religion? Why would you buy into it?
For the me the appeal has always been that libertarians have always been advocates for both individual economic freedom and yet also individual social freedom. There is no logical reason that these two things should not be paired together, but for some reason the two dominant political camps tend to talk about just one or the other (though admittedly what they actually do given power is often startlingly similar). The view that each adult should be left alone to make their own decisions and take their own risks in finacial matters would not seem to contradict the view that each adult should be left alone to decide their sexual preferences, drug usage, reading patterns, and so on... but for some reason these two colors are only mixed on the libertarian palette.
And you know, these days pretty much everyone recognizes the efficiency of markets (yes, even you my rhetorical lefty, you): When markets work, they work really well. But there was a time when you didn't hear that much except from some libertarian crazies off on the fringe.
And similarly, most reasonable people today have a healthy sense of skepticism about big government programs. But once upon a time you needed to go to the libertarians to find some understanding of the the rather elementary points that politicians (a) often don't know what they're doing and (b) when they do, have often have other goals in mind than the public welfare.
When confronted with a problem, Americans have traditionally reacted something like "there oughta be a law against this" or "we've got to do something to fix this". Libertarians have developed a different habit of mind, and tend to first look for something we're doing that needs to be stopped. "Is there some government intervention that is causing this problem?" E.g "Build more prisons? Why don't we drop some of these inane drug laws, and free up half of the cells?" It's a lesson we'd all do well to absorb: "First do no harm."
There's a beautiful judo-like quality in the libertarian approach to problems, a reluctance to step in the way of human desire. You use self-interest to promote the general interest. Instead of railing against the tendency toward selfishness as corruption, you accept it, and try and roll with it. Libertarians sing the praises of uncoerced, spontaneous, self-organization.
As ideals go, these are not bad ideals. Though we'll leave discussion of the practicalities for another day...