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June 6, 2004

thoughts on libertarianism

Since I’m at a Liberty Fund conference with several libertarians, I’d like to make two comments about this ideology:

1. I’m open to pragmatic but not philosophical libertarianism: If you come at me with a coherent and radical version of libertarianism, I will resist it. In contrast to libertarians, I believe that human beings may make claims on others for economic support; that some of these claims are morally obligatory; and that governments may enforce such claims through taxing and spending. I don’t see a tax as an immoral “taking” of sacrosanct private property. This is only one place where I part company with abstract libertarian theory.

However, libertarians have also developed a whole set of pragmatic arguments to accompany their core philosophical beliefs. They say that governments tend to fail at their own explicit purposes, are often captured by special interests, and promote upward economic redistribution; and that markets work better. Libertarians often assert that these arguments must apply in all (or almost all) circumstances. They rely on fundamental theoretical reasons that derive from economics, not philosophy—for example, the idea that markets efficiently deliver what everyone demands. I think, in partial contrast, that market solutions often work in particular domains and are worth testing. In practice, this means that I am open to, and interested in, libertarian arguments that take the form, “A market will solve problem x” (where x is something like poverty, crime, or environmental degradation). Pure philosophical libertarianism, however, says, “We shouldn’t structure the ground rules of society in order to solve problems of this type; we should simply respect private individual liberty.” I disagree with this formulation, but that doesn’t prevent me from learning practical lessons from libertarianism.

For example, my colleague Bob Nelson is a libertarian who has argued for a long time that cities ought to grant all their zoning power to neighborhood associations. I can imagine granting such associations the right to buy garbage and sewer services on the open market; and the right to operate charter schools. Local police precincts could also be made accountable to the same associations. I suspect that in poor neighborhoods, people could do better for themselves than the city government can do for them. I’m not positive that this is a libertarian position, but whatever it is, it’s well worth a try.

2. Libertarians should be much more concerned than they are with political socialization: For well over a century, libertarian authors have been arguing eloquently for a minimal state. Yet most Americans favor Social Security and Medicare, oppose drug legalization, and are even lukewarm about the Bill of Rights. What’s gone wrong? Perhaps libertarian arguments are not compelling. (That is my own view.) Or perhaps parents and communities are raising their kids to be other than libertarians. A shelfload of books and articles by the likes of Hayek, Nozick, and Ayn Rand cannot counteract powerful socialization by millions of parents.

I mentioned an example in my last post, but let me spell it out a little more. In some metropolitan areas, there’s a stark contrast between neat, safe, prosperous private communities in which open displays of political opinion are banned, and poor, relatively high-crime urban neighborhoods in which you often see political signs and even some picketers and canvassers. There is also a contrast between fancy suburban malls—considered private property—in which canvassing and leafleting are banned, and decrepit urban streets in which you can see all kinds of political speech, including graffiti. If millions of kids grow up in communities that are wealthy but intolerant of public speech, they are likely to draw the conclusion that speech is detrimental to order and prosperity. As I wrote in my last post, this is political socialization for fascism.

Libertarians are loath to restrict private contracts, even those that voluntarily restrict speech. They have a point: we aren’t free if we cannot associate in intolerant communities. But if many people choose to ban freedom within their commonly-owned private property, then they are highly unlikely to raise libertarian kids. This is a big problem for libertarianism. Paper guarantees of freedom mean nothing if most people are against freedom.

The great libertarian economist Frank Knight wrote in 1939:

The individual cannot be the datum for the purposes of social policy, because he is largely formed by the social process, and the nature of the individual must be affected by social action. Consequently, social policy must be judged by the kind of individuals that are produced by or under it, and not merely by the type of relations which subsist among individuals taken as they stand.

Moral: if you want libertarian policies, you need "social processes" that make people libertarians, and those policies may not arise as a result of free choices by individuals "taken as they stand." What's more, free parents make choices that overwhelmingly shape their children, which means that there can be tradeoffs between parental liberty and the liberty of the next generation. As Knight wrote, "liberalism is more 'familism' than literal individualism." But if families don't produce children who strongly prize freedom, then liberalism and "familism" will work at cross purposes.

June 6, 2004 11:51 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


Bismarck: "Freedom, I distrust this word because it always seems to be about of one's own freedom, not the freedom of others."

Why do parents not socialize their children as libertarians? Self-interest does not require socialization. Parents struggle to teach their children to respect the rights of others. Socialization is about inculcating a sense of obligation. This requires that parents invoke their authority when their children are violating the rights of peers and siblings. Parents sustain the foundation of social institutions, especially freedom, only if they inculcate a sense of obligation and other regardingness in their children.

Naive libertarianism fails to satisfy the requirements of freedom and humanity.

Freedom cannot work unless it rests on the obligation to respect the freedom of others. Without obligation freedom leads straight into tyranny. During the American Revolution the British quipped that American slaveholders complained the loudest about freedom. In the market place freedom's obligations are satisfied by the demand that the economic actor bear the costs of his or her actions. If that is the case (and that is a big if) then individual freedom does not impose on others. Unfortunately, relationships that are not charactererized by voluntary exchange have no equilibrium that could automatically coordinate the private and the public interest. Often it is not clear whether freedom is best served by keeping government out of the way or by protecting citizens from victimization. In the United States the solution to this quandary is the separation of power. Checks and balances mean that even the most powerful have to answer to somebody. Absolute monarchies or totalitarian dictatorships on the other hand exclude the powerful from accountability. This freedom of the powerful comes at the expense of everybody else. Without checks on the powerful there is neither citizenship nor freedom. Checks and balances did not emerge anarchically but are imposed as authoritative rules. Even though the United States Constitution was ratified by state legislatures that had been elected by the people, consent was not unanimous. Therefore a certain degree of coercion directed at the powerful and at the electoral minority remains a foundation of freedom. It might be possible to preserve liberty with a less coercive framework but it will not work without some degree of coercion.

The problem of coercion becomes especially relevant because the human species requirement for nurture cannot be entirely satisfied in terms of voluntary exchanges in the free market. (Biologists classify humans as an altricious as opposed to a precocious species. Turtles, for example, are hatching self-reliant that require no nurture and are therefore precocious). Markets do not nurture. Institutions that do nurture, however, also have a tremendous capacity for abuse. That is just as true for the family as it is for government. Clearly, we cannot abolish the family just because it is the perpetrator of child abuse. Humanity cannot survive without some form of family. And in spite of abuse families, I would argue, are better off within a framework of larger institutions including religion, neighborhood, ethnicity, and government. At the very least, we need those larger institutions to hold abusive families accountable.

June 9, 2004 12:24 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Hellmut Lotz

This is an interesting and thought-provoking post: thanks for writing it.

I think that point 1 is a bit foggy. What you are saying is that, via some undisclosed institution A, we should decide for each case x whether the market solution is best. This position is problematic and perhaps Utopian without an explicit description of A, however, and an argument for why A is going to make the right decision for enough x and be cheap enough that it is better than acting as if we are philosophical libertarians.

One A that is generally on offer is: have a big public argument and then let politicians decide (subject to any discipline voters place on them by voting them out). This A has problems. Politicians often do not have proper incentives to decide the right way even for the x for which there is a big public argument. Furthermore, this method is expensive. It can only be used practically for a few x. Other A on offer are: let courts decide and let regulators decide. As you allude to, the economic field of Public Choice is more or less about this question.

In addition, I think the distinction between philosophical and pragmatic libertarians is a bit strained. Even Ayn Rand, presumably a paradigmatic example of a philosophical libertarian, spent lots of her rhetorical energy on pragmatic arguments. Some or many philosophical libertarians seem to me to be people who are not interested in making case by case arguments because they disbelieve in the existence or practical relevance of A (though few would put it this way).

Your second point seems right in general (libertarians largely don't and should spend time discussing political socialization), but your examples seem wrong to me. One need not accept the claim that grubby people with funny hats pressing copies of some IWW rag into the hands of uninterested passers-by is the sine qua non of political speech. There are lots of forums for political speech: TV/radio talk programs, newspaper editorials, scholarly debate, chats over beers, the Internet, etc.

Anecdotally, I was raised more or less as you describe, and I am a pragmatic libertarian. My own casual empiricism leads me to believe that just the opposite of your fear is true: we raised-as-suburbanites seem more libertarian than our raised-as-urbanite counterparts. Is your experience different? It would be interesting to see if, in fact, raised-suburbanites are more or less libertarian than raised-urbanites in any systematic way.

I guess leafletting was not banned where I grew up or in most residential suburbs, but it certainly almost never happened. The lack of an explicit ban does not seem relevant to your point, however.

June 11, 2004 9:14 AM | Comments (4) | posted by Bill

"...I believe that human beings may make claims on others for economic support; that some of these claims are morally obligatory..."

I for one would like to hear(see) those claims made; offhand I can't think of any that I'd be persuaded by, excepting familial claims.

If you or someone has already made that argument, maybe you could point me to it?


June 11, 2004 6:54 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Craig

Great post.

To Bill:

I think the best form of institution A is representative democracy. I like to think of represenative democracy as a second market--the market of votes.

Free market (the market of dollars) needs a check to balance any abuses that might arise from the market. The market of votes (representative democracy) seems to be the best possible solution.

Representative democracy seems to be a better form of gov't than direct democracy for this simply because division of labor is more efficient at achieving goals and voters do not have the time, training, tempermemnt, or tools to ultimately be the most effective at checking potential abuses of the market of dollars.

June 11, 2004 9:20 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Kilroy Was Here

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