Sunday, December 2, 2007


I used to consider myself a libertarian. Although I still frequently agree with libertarians, I no longer call myself one. There was no sudden moment when I decided I was not a libertarian; I just sort of gradually drifted away.

By "libertarian" I mean one who accepts the idea that one can never justly initiate force as an absolute moral axiom, and that essentially all moral rules can be derived from this axiom. Equivalently, one has an absolute right to do as one pleases provided one does not directly harm another. Although I think this is a good guiding principle, I think it is neither absolute nor sufficient.

There are several problems with what I will refer to as "the libertarian axiom". First, I don't think there's a clear objective threshold as to when harm occurs. For example, I think it would be absurd to complain about the secondhand smoke from a cigarette miles away, but there must be some limit as to how much noxious fumes one can be expected to endure. Things only get more complicated when one considers that how much is being emitted will also be uncertain.

There also is a problem with what happens when, inevitably, force is initiated. It seems to me insufficient for people to simply agree not to initiate force themselves. There ought to be some responsibility to aid defenders or punish aggressors, but I can't see how that would be consistent with the axiom. The idea that one may (but need not) side with a defender against an aggressor is appealing in clear cases, but it is often not completely clear who the initial aggressor was.

It's clear that some degree of retaliatory force must be acceptable, but I think there ought to be some limit as to how much retaliation can be justly applied.

I also think that in some circumstances it is reasonable to stop people from doing things which endanger one but which have not yet caused harm, even without evidence that harm is intended or proof that harm definitely will occur. Certainly I think it can be appropriate to act against someone who clearly does intend harm.

These are the main pragmatic difficulties I see with implementing a system based on the axiom, but even if they could be satisfactorily resolved, there's a more fundamental philosphical problem: there is no guarantee that people can be convinced to accept the axiom in the first place, and my experience indicates that most people can't.

I think most libertarians tend to be less affected by material jealousy than is the average person. They tend to like having stuff, but it doesn't bother them much if at all if other people have more or better stuff. I'm like that myself. Most people would agree that if everyone could have more stuff it would be better. But many people seem to value a universal improvement only slightly, and primarily seem interested in what they have relative to everybody else. It does no good to assert that people "shouldn't" view the prosperity of others as a bad thing. People's preferences are what they are.

The argument that free market policies tend to lead to increased prosperity for everyone is only powerful if one has already decided material prosperity is important. In a society in which people value leisure highly and primarily are concerned with relative rather than absolute material well-being, it would not be at all surprising if laws limiting the number of hours one can legally work (for example) could make most people better off according to their own conception of the good.

Similarly for freedom of speech, the press, religion, etc. I have no desire to tell other people what to read or not to read, and I don't really care much what they believe or say, only what they do. Whereas it is very important to me to be able to read and say what I choose. But the fact is, most people in the world don't feel that way. There's a notion that almost everyone would prefer to be able to speak his own mind to being able to suppress the speech of others, but I I think this idea is mistaken. Many people would feel it outrageous that they should be subjected to blasphemous speech, inconceivable that they would ever want to blaspheme themselves, and madness that the ideas of other cultures as to what does and does not constitute blasphemy is equally valid as their own.

If someone were to assert that equality (whatever that means) is good purely for its own sake, or that the individual subsuming his own interests to those of the group is good in and of itself, it would be impossible to prove the asserter "wrong", and societies designed with those values in mind could be optimal according to their own conception of good. The fact is, one can make as many internally consistent value systems as one cares to, and they all seem absurd looking at them from the outside. Libertarianism only appeals to a small fraction of the world's population, and this isn't going to change anytime soon. It might be possible to live in a libertarian community. It is not possible to live in a libertarian country of major size, much less a libertarian world.


Peter Horne said...

Interesting post.

I would recommend Sir James Fitzjames Stephen's book "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" on just this subject. He believes, if I understand him correctly, that the libertarian conception of liberty amounts not to liberty but to licence. He believes force is allowable if:

The objective is a good one, the proposed measure will actually achieve the object in practice and the cost will not outweigh the beneficial effects.

Brilliant book.

Byrne Hobart said...

I also think that in some circumstances it is reasonable to stop people from doing things which endanger one but which have not yet caused harm, even without evidence that harm is intended or proof that harm definitely will occur. Certainly I think it can be appropriate to act against someone who clearly does intend harm.

The way I assume that would work is that some benefits currently provided by governments (contract enforcement, property protection, a safety net) would be provided by independent entities, and that these entities would proscribe activities that could raise their costs. If you are, for example, taking potshots at your neighbors, it's likely that they'll eventually shoot back, at which point you're likely to be injured or killed. Knowing this, your life and health insurance companies would probably stipulate that you not act aggressively unless you were willing to pay a higher premium.

Of course, some people would choose to live outside such a system, but those people would be about as rare, and as marginal, as they are now.