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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.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:51 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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