social order

What Is Libertarianism?

Many definitions of libertarianism are available online. I like this one for its depth:

Although there is much disagreement about the details, libertarians are generally united by a rough agreement on a cluster of normative principles, empirical generalizations, and policy recommendations. Libertarians are committed to the belief that individuals, and not states or groups of any other kind, are both ontologically and normatively primary; that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others; that liberty, understood as non-interference, is the only thing that can be legitimately demanded of others as a matter of legal or political right; that robust property rights and the economic liberty that follows from their consistent recognition are of central importance in respecting individual liberty; that social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty; that the only proper use of coercion is defensive or to rectify an error; that governments are bound by essentially the same moral principles as individuals; and that most existing and historical governments have acted improperly insofar as they have utilized coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, and other purposes beyond the protection of individual liberty. (“Libertarianism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Two aspects of this definition merit closer examination. The first is “that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others.” Whence these rights, and how extensive are they? I say here that

[r]ights, as products of social evolution, are strictures on interpersonal behavior, not “essences” that emanate from individuals. Rights, therefore, are culturally variable in their precise contours, but certain constants of human nature (empathy, self-interest) lead most cultures in the direction of a modus vivendi like the Golden Rule.

Specifically:

There’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

Adherence to the Golden Rule is vestigial because in the past century — since the advent of the regulatory-welfare state and the seizure of state power by social “activists” — eons of socially evolved behavioral norms have been distorted and swept aside. Thus the phenomena of broad support for abortion and growing support for same-sex “marriage” — both of which are due to the anti-social combination of “activism” and sponsorship by an anti-religious state.

This leads me to the second aspect of the definition of libertarianism that merits closer attention: “social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty.” The ranks of self-styled libertarians abound with social engineers who would, if they could, override the social order with their own visions of how that order should look. These pseudo-libertarians do not hesitate to prescribe a social order aligned with their effete sensibilities.

To the many examples of pseudo-libertarianism that I have adduced in previous posts (e.g., here and here), I will add two. First comes Charles Johnson, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, points with pride to his article, “The Many Monopolies” (Freeman, September 2011). Regulations, according to Johnson,

fundamentally restructure markets, inventing the class structures of ownership, ratcheted costs, and inhibited competition that produce wage labor, rent, and the corporate economy we face….

A fully freed market means liberating essential command posts in the economy from State control, to be reclaimed for market and social entrepreneurship. The market that would emerge would look profoundly different from anything we have now.

What it would look like — in Johnson’s dreams — is a kind  of leftist Utopia: “Independent contracting, co-ops, and worker-managed shops.” This, of course, is pure guesswork — and wishful thinking — about the effects of abolishing all regulations, whether they superficially favor labor, business, or consumers. (I have more to say about such guesswork in this post.)

The subtitle of Johnson’s analysis should be “Small is beautiful.” It reads like a nostalgic lament for pre-industrial America, as if large corporations are evil per se.

Then there is the reliably leftist libertarian, Will Wilkinson, who says that

there are other legitimate public goods beyond the police protection of property rights. The need to finance the provision of these goods can justifiably limit our property rights, just as a system of property can justifiably limit our right to free movement. The use of official coercion to collect necessary taxes is no more or less problematic than the use of official coercion to enforce claims to legitimate property. Of course, those who suffer most from the absence of adequate public goods are the poor and powerless. (“A Libertarian’s Lament: Why Ron Paul Is an Embarrassment to the Creed,” The New Republic, September 2, 2011)

What are those other “public goods” to which Wilkinson refers? One of them is public schooling. It may seem strange for a so-called libertarian to endorse public schooling, but — in Wilkinson’s view — the cause is just if it benefits “poor kids.” Well, then, why not tax “the rich” to put everyone in the lower half of the income distribution on the dole? Where does one draw the line? Where Wilkinson says to draw the line, I suppose. After all, one mustn’t allow social outcomes that displease Mr. Wilkinson.

The point of these examples is that they illustrate a decided antagonism to a “social order [that] develops out of individual liberty.” They are consistent with “positive liberty,” which — as I have written — is not liberty at all.

Libertarianism — true libertarianism — does not presume to prescribe the outcome of social activity, only its conditions: peaceful and voluntary. It is inevitable and unavoidable that peaceful, voluntary social activity will yield outcomes that are unequal — in terms of income, wealth, and social status — and even distasteful — in terms of inter-group antipathies and discriminatory behavior.  But unequal and distasteful outcomes are rooted in the reality of human nature, which Michael Schermer summarizes quite well in his essay, “Liberty and Science,” at Cato Unbound:

  1. The clear and quantitative physical differences among people in size, strength, speed, agility, coordination, and other physical attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  2. The clear and quantitative intellectual differences among people in memory, problem solving ability, cognitive speed, mathematical talent, spatial reasoning, verbal skills, emotional intelligence, and other mental attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  3. The evidence from behavior genetics and twin studies indicating that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are accounted for by genetics.
  4. The failed communist and socialist experiments around the world throughout the 20th century revealed that top-down draconian controls over economic and political systems do not work.
  5. The failed communes and utopian community experiments tried at various places throughout the world over the past 150 years demonstrated that people by nature do not adhere to the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  6. The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities have tried and failed to break up the family and have children raised by others; these attempts provide counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”
  7. The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.
  8. The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give.
  9. The almost universal nature of hierarchical social structures—egalitarianism only works (barely) among tiny bands of hunter-gatherers in resource-poor environments where there is next to no private property, and when a precious game animal is hunted extensive rituals and religious ceremonies are required to insure equal sharing of the food.
  10. The almost universal nature of aggression, violence, and dominance, particularly on the part of young males seeking resources, women, and especially status, and how status-seeking in particular explains so many heretofore unexplained phenomena, such as high risk taking, costly gifts, excessive generosity beyond one’s means, and especially attention seeking.
  11. The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  12. The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.

Efforts to channel human nature in contrary directions — whether those efforts are “liberal” or “libertarian” —  can lead only in one direction: the stifling of liberty:

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals. (Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge,” Nobel Prize lecture, December 11, 1974)

Related posts:
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Columnist, Heal Thyself
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Enough of “Social Welfare”
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
The Ideal as a False and Dangerous Standard
The Arrogance of (Some) Economists