UPDATED WITH A P.S. AT THE END
Yesterday, thanks to this pointer by Mike Rappaport at The Right Coast, I read Edward Feser’s “The Trouble with Libertarianism” at Tech Central Station. I posted this response, not knowing that I was late to the party.
Feser’s article (dated 07/20/04) had already drawn a rebuttal (on the same day) by Julian Sanchez at Julian’s Lounge, another rebuttal (dated 07/28/04) by Will Wilkinson at Tech Central Station, and a third rebuttal by Randy Barnett at The Volokh Conspiracy. Feser replied to Wilkinson on 08/03/04. Wilkinson, writing at The Fly Bottle (his own blog) essayed a partial reply to Feser on 08/04/04, with a promise of more to come.
The centerpiece of Feser’s original essay is this provocative statement:
The trouble with libertarianism is that many of its adherents have for too long labored under the illusion…that their creed is a single unified political philosophy that does not, and need not, take a stand on the most contentious moral issues dividing contemporary society. This has led to confusion both at the level of theory and at the level of policy. Libertarians need to get clear about exactly what they believe and why. And when they do, they might find that their particular version of libertarianism commits them – or ought to commit them – to regard as rivals those they might once have considered allies.
What did Julian Sanchez say in reply to Feser? Here’s the bottom line:
The whole reason to have a neutral political conception is that citizens hold such incompatible doctrines. On Feser’s account, apparently, if I endorse a political conception from the perspective of a background picture that regards theological doctrines as in error, then somehow the doctrine itself becomes non-neutral. This gets coupled with the weird assertion that non-traditionalist libertarian views “entail” a social marginalization of those with traditionalist or bourgeois views. “Entails” in what sense? Your guess is as good as mine.
Will Wilkinson, in his article of 07/28/04, neatly summarizes Feser’s argument, then makes essentially the same point as Sanchez:
It’s hard to pin down the argument in Feser’s convoluted dissertation. I count at least four loosely confederated claims:
(1) ‘Libertarianism’ does not designate a single, coherent philosophical position. There are only “libertarianisms,” i.e., various mutually inconsistent brands of so-called libertarianism.
(2) Libertarianisms can be lumped into two main categories:
a. Traditionalism, natural rights classical liberalism with a “thick” conception of human nature and human natural ends. (I’ll call this “thick libertarianism.”)
b. “Economistic” consequentialist libertarianism, with a “thin,” reductionist conception of human nature and rational choice. I’ll call this (“thin libertarianism.”)
(3) Both thick and thin libertarianism pretend to be neutral between various moral worldviews, but aren’t really. In the end, each marginalizes someone.
(4) Thick libertarians have more in common with natural law conservatives than they do with thin libertarians, and ought to be wary of allying themselves with laissez allez economists.
It would be tedious to address each of these claims at length. Instead, I’m going to present what I take to be the most persuasive form libertarianism, which I’ll call “political libertarianism.” Now, political libertarianism just is libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political doctrine of liberal social order, not a metaphysical doctrine about human nature and the human good. Once you’ve got a grip on the idea of libertarianism as a distinctively political doctrine, it’s easy enough to see that Feser’s claim (1) is false, (2) and (4) are irrelevant, and (3) betrays rather stunning incomprehension of the idea of liberal (and libertarian) neutrality.
Libertarians no longer argue, as they once did in the 1970s, about whether libertarianism must be grounded on moral rights or on consequences; they no longer act as though they must choose between these two moral views. In this paper, I contend that libertarians need not choose between moral rights and consequences because theirs is a political, not a moral, philosophy; one that can be shown to be compatible with various moral theories, which is one source of its appeal.
Moral theories based on either moral rights or on consequentialism purport to be “comprehensive,” insofar as they apply to all moral questions to the exclusion of all other moral theories. Although the acceptance of one of these moral theories entails the rejection of all others, libertarian moral rights philosophers on the one hand, and utilitarians on the other, can embrace libertarian political theory with equal fervor. I explain how can this be and why it is a strength rather than a weakness of libertarian political theory.
Conservatives, neoconservatives, and those on the left who seek to impose by force their comprehensive conception of “the good” neglect the “problem of power” – an exacerbated instance of the twin fundamental social problems of knowledge and interest. For a comprehensive moralist of the right or left, using force to impose their morality on others might be their first choice among social arrangements. Having another’s comprehensive morality imposed upon them by force is their last choice. The libertarian minimalist approach of enforcing only the natural rights that define justice should be everyone’s second choice. A compromise, as it were, that makes civil society possible. And therein lies its imperative.
Feser, in his article of 08/03/04, rejects the notion of a neutral “political libertarianism” of the sort advanced by Sanchez, Wilkinson, and Barnett:
When the semantic game-playing is put to one side, however, it is clear that, whatever one thinks of abortion, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates can be reasonable (in the everyday sense of “reasonable,” rather than the ideologically loaded Rawlsian or Wilkinsonian sense); and it is also clear that any view (whether one chooses to call it “political libertarianism” or not) which requires either legalized abortion or a prohibition on abortion is not genuinely neutral between all reasonable worldviews. It is obvious too that a vast theoretical and practical gulf separates pro-life and pro-choice libertarians, just as a vast theoretical and practical gulf separated those believers in natural rights who held slavery to be legitimate from those who held it to be unjust. Differences this big cannot fail to reflect deep differences over the nature of justice, rights, and the bearers of rights. Both the claims of my original article are thereby confirmed: the differences between the various versions of libertarianism are more significant than the similarities; and once one gets clear about exactly which version of libertarianism one is talking about, one will see that it is not genuinely neutral between all reasonable comprehensive doctrines.
Wilkinson, in his most recent entry (08/04/04), restates his position by contrasting libertarianism with competing political philosophies:
The libertarian conception of liberal order differs from the welfare liberal version and the conservative versions in exactly the way you would imagine, and in exactly the way I mentioned near the end of my TCS piece. The welfare liberal believes fairly extensive and deep-reaching redistributive and regulatory mechanisms are a necessary condition for stable liberal order. The conservative believes that a considerable number of restrictions on personal choice are required to maintain the conditions for the flourishing of the family, which is a necessary condition for stable liberal order. The libertarian thinks we need neither extensive and deep-reaching regulation and redistribution, nor considerable restriction on personal choice in order for liberal order to hum along quite nicely. Various views about the nature of rights and the rule of law are consistent with the libertarian view.
Feser in general seems to be obsessed with borderline cases, and how exactly to mark out the boundaries of categories. He should relax and acquiesce to the wisdom of ordinary use. While I don’t insist on self-identifying as a libertarian, other people identify me as a libertarian because I have a set of views that are characteristically shared by libertarians. That said, I believe in the possibility of a legitimate state. I believe in the desirability of some small-scale redistribution. I am not opposed to all paternalistic restrictions on behavior. I’m no purist. But people have no problem identifying me as a kind of libertarian. If my views shifted along one or another dimension, I might become more like a welfare liberal or a classical liberal conservative than a libertarian. The point on the continua where I would be best classified as something else, like the point of hair-loss at which I man is best classified as “bald”, is obscure. Nevertheless, I don’t imagine Feser has a problem identifying the bald. And I don’t suppose that people who identify me as a libertarian are confused.
As I said:
Conservative libertarians weigh their values and choose to be libertarians rather than conservatives, just as utilitarian libertarians weigh their values and choose to be libertarians rather than, say, anarchists. Even if these disparate libertarians are joined “only” in their commitment to the liberty afforded by the minimal state, that surely distinguishes them from those on the left and right who — separately and differently — seek the shelter of the regulatory-welfare state. Whatever divides libertarians is less significant than what unites them.
As a pro-war libertarian, I would rather be allied, in the long run, with anti-war libertarians than with anti-war Democrats, whose anti-war rhetoric reflects Bush-hatred rather than a principled objection to any war that isn’t strictly defensive. I similarly reject any long-run alliance with pro-war Republicans, whose pro-war rhetoric knows no distinction between self-defense and hatred of all things Arabic and Islamic.
As someone who has reservations about abortion and same-sex marriage, for reasons too complex to explore here, I would rather be allied with libertarians who support or condone both causes than with Republicans whose religious views dominate their political views or Democrats whose support of abortion and same-sex marriage is simply a mindless mantra.
I will vote for Bush because, for me, he is the lesser of two evils; many (perhaps most) libertarians will not vote, waste a vote on a third-party candidate, or vote for Kerry because, for them, he is the lesser of two evils. Again, I would rather be allied with those libertarians, for the long haul, than with Democrats or Republicans, whose principles boil down to “spend and elect”.
In other words, I agree with Feser in this respect:
These disagreements and their inevitable political consequences cannot be wished away — or defined away — and libertarians do themselves no credit by pretending otherwise.
I do not pretend otherwise, nor do I expect other libertarians to pretend otherwise.
I accept that not all libertarians think alike about all issues, but neither do all conservatives, liberals, Democrats, or Republicans think alike about all issues. The important thing, to me, about conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans is that they don’t share my commitment to what Feser describes so well
as the view in political philosophy that the only legitimate function of a government is to protect its citizens from force, fraud, theft, and breach of contract, and that it otherwise ought not to interfere with its citizens’ dealings with one another, either to make them more economically equal or to make them more morally virtuous.
I therefore ally myself with those who share that view. If that isn’t moral neutrality, what is?