An Anti-Libertarian Reader

September 10, 2008

Reasonable Thought on Unreasonable Ideas

Filed under: Anti-Libertarians, Philosophy — Tags: , , — jimmy0d @ 12:31 pm

Philosophy Etcetera is the home of philosopher Richard Chappell and is not only an indispensible resource for philosophy students and practicing philosohers on the web but also a thorn in the side of the irrational ideology of libertarianism.  So I present to you a sampling of posts that clearly and distinctly severe this new faith at the knees.  Enjoy and don’t forget the hate mail.

Substansive Freedom

One of the major criticisms of libertarianism that I keep coming back to is their impoverished conception of freedom as mere non-interference. A “freedom from” only has substantive worth insofar as it gives rise to a complementary “freedom to”. It’s the latter that really matters, and I can’t see how anyone who has reflected upon the matter could possibly deny this. If you tie me up, that’s bad because it stops me from doing the things I want. If untying me wouldn’t change any of that, then it wouldn’t do me any good. And if I could continue to do all the things I wanted despite being tied up, then it wouldn’t really be much of a harm. What matters, in either case, is what opportunities are open to me. Whether I’ve been “interfered” with is of secondary (and derivative) importance.

Self Ownership

…self-ownership is a merely ‘formal’ notion that does not guarantee any substantive freedom or power over one’s own life. As Kymlicka asks, “how can I be said to own myself if I may do nothing without the permission of others?” (p.122) But the poor and disadvantaged face the same problem within a capitalist system, and right-wingers are unconcerned by their lack of substantive freedom. Thus they have no grounds on which to complain against this egalitarian dystopia, for it violates no rights that capitalism doesn’t.

But we should reject both systems, if what we really value is substantive self-determination. Our aim should be to enable as many people as possible to live the lives they want to live. We should ensure access to education, healthcare, and basic human needs like food and shelter, since all of these are essential prerequisites to any form of freedom worth having.

Original Appropriation

The problem for the libertarian here is that any such appropriation necessarily violates the liberty of others, for it prevents them from making use of what they previously had free access to. (As previously noted, the enforcement of property rights involves physical coercion, and thus conflicts with others’ freedom from interference.) For example, if I appropriate the only local food source, and refuse anyone else access to it, then my actions have clearly harmed them — indeed, a consistent libertarian ought to say that I have violated their rights.

Political Fictions

I’ve just been reading Jeremy Bentham’s rather good refutation of natural law/rights. A major problem for the whole ‘natural law’ approach to morality & politics is that there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that any such laws exist. They’re mere inventions, made up to support the prejudices of their advocate. Despite their supposed ‘self-evidence’, such ‘laws’ end up conflicting with those proposed by others. As Bentham notes, “the systems are as numerous as authors”.

The whole approach seems to involve a confusion of physical (natural) and human laws. Natural laws cannot be broken, they simply describe the way our universe works – there are no normative notions involved, for they do not allow themselves to be broken. “If there were a law of nature which directed all men toward their common good, [human] laws would be useless… it would be kindling a torch to add light to the sun.”

The notion of natural rights is similarly incoherent: “nonsense on stilts”, according to Bentham. “Right is with me the child of law… A natural right is a son that never had a father”

Taxation is not Theft

A third justification for taxation is communitarian in nature. Wealth is not created in isolation, it is as much a product of society as it is the individual. After all, society provides the enabling conditions for the individual to flourish — your success would not be possible were it not for the opportune conditions of the society one works within, and the actions of your fellow citizens. Thus the community might rightfully claim “dues” on wealth that is created within the safety of its confines. Wealth is a social product — a fact which the atomistic view (common to liberalism and libertarianism) leads us to overlook.

These latter arguments take us beyond the theoretical apparatus of libertarianism, but, given the inadequacy of the theory, that’s not a bad thing. Indeed, I think the libertarian has framed the debate in a very misleading fashion. They treat property as if it were a natural (pre-political) right, emerging from the ‘state of nature’, with which government may not interfere. But natural rights are a political fiction — “nonsense on stilts”, as Bentham put it. We have no reason to think that such bizarre entities exist.

Freedom and Constraint

This impoverished view fails to recognise that the whole point of being free from some constraint is to enable us to achieve some goal. What matters is that options be open to us; if removing constraints will enable more options, then we can indeed be made more free by their removal. But it is the ‘enabling’ that matters, not the ‘removing’. If I am stuck in the desert with no water in sight, then I am not free to drink, even if no-one else is around to obstruct me. Natural conditions can obstruct the fulfillment of my desires just as badly as humanly-imposed constraints.

Libertarian vs. Utilitarian Justice

Libertarians hold that the free market is inherently just, and redistributive taxation violates people’s property rights. Utilitarians, by contrast, are fundamentally concerned with the promotion of human welfare. They hold that society ought to be organized in whatever fashion would best achieve this end potentially justifying massive redistribution of wealth to the needy. The two theories also differ significantly in their temporal perspectives. Libertarian entitlement theory understands justice to be a purely historical matter: whether a distribution is just depends on how it came about. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is purely forward-looking: justice is determined by what would have the best consequences for all concerned.

Voluntary Exchange

Perhaps most important is how we understand coercion. In the libertarian (non-welfare) state, poor people are effectively forced to labour. There are no reasonable alternatives (given that starving to death is the only alternative that would be open to many, and that clearly is not a reasonable one!). This desperation will weaken their bargaining power, so it would seem a mistake to say that they’re in any position to give “voluntary consent” for their employment contracts. There’s nothing “voluntary” about it — they have no other options. If you’re stuck down a well, and I offer to throw you a rope in exchange for everything you own, you have no real choice but to accept. This would not be a just transfer.

Forced Labor

Now, I do think he’s quite right that taxation isn’t really voluntary. We have no reasonable alternatives: if we want to live in modern society, then we’re forced to pay taxes. But the same is true of the proletariat’s work. If he wants to live in modern society then he is forced to labour. It’s no different, and the consistent libertarian ought to concede this

Institutional Rights

We have no reason to believe in such entities as “natural rights” — they are at once metaphysically mysterious and ethically inadequate. Moreover, it would be fetishistic to care about such entities fundamentally and for their own sakes. What really matters are people, and rights are only important insofar as they benefit real people.

Enabling Humanity

I think that substantive freedom – that is, enabling people to achieve their goals and live the sorts of lives they want to live – is the central politico-moral value that our modern pluralistic society ought to promote.

One advantage of it is that it is so obviously desirable. It’s difficult to imagine anyone rejecting this value. It is universally applicable: no matter your personal values or goals in life, substantive freedom will help you achieve them.

Negative freedom, or freedom from coercive interference, is similarly desirable, though more weakly so. Substantive freedom includes and builds upon negative freedom. There are different sorts of constraints that may impede us in our life pursuits. There are things that get in our way (“positive” constraints) and needed things that we lack (“negative” constraints). These may be “internal” to our selves, or else concerning the “external” world. They may be traceable back to the agency of other humans, or not. But whatever their nature and origin, the result is the same: an obstruction to our endeavours in life. We should like to overcome as many such obstacles as possible. Negative freedom has value in that it protects us against positive external constraints that originate from the agency of others. But clearly that is just one part of the picture, and substantive freedom will require us to take a broader perspective, recognizing – and hopefully alleviating – the other obstacles that hamper us in the pursuit of our goals.

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