Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism

I highly recommend “Understanding Hayek” as a companion-piece to this post.

UPDATED (BELOW), 06/01/12

This post is in response to Jason Brennan’s post of May 30, “We Are Statists in Classical Liberal Clothing.” Brennan’s post was triggered ” by “Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists,” which I posted on May 10.

I must say, first, that I am grateful to Brennan for linking to my blog, my bio, and the post that offends him. Today, the number of page views at Politics & Prosperity is about double the usual total for a Wednesday.

Now, what is right and what is wrong in Brennan’s reaction to my (admittedly and intentionally) provocative post? The first thing that is wrong with it is that I am not a libertarian, at least not of a kind that Brennan and company would recognize as such. I call myself a Burkean libertarian because (a) I am a Burkean conservative and (b) true libertarianism is found in Burkean conservatism; to wit:

A “true” libertarian respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

If socially evolved norms include the condemnation of abortion (because it involves the murder of a living human being) and the rejection of same-sex “marriage” (because it mocks and undermines the institution through which children are born and raised by an adult of each gender, fate willing), the “true” libertarian will accept those norms as part and parcel of the larger social order — as long as it is a peaceful, voluntary order.

The “pseudo” libertarian — in my observation — will reject those norms because they interfere with the “natural rights” (or some such thing) of the individuals who want to abort fetuses and/or grant same-sex “marriage” the same status as heterosexual marriage. But to reject and reverse norms as fundamental as the condemnation of abortion and same-sex “marriage”  is to create strife and distrust, therefore undermining the conditions upon which liberty depends….

The pseudo-libertarian … is afraid to admit that the long evolution of rules of conduct by human beings who must coexist  might just be superior to the rules that he would arbitrarily impose, reflecting as they do his “superior” sensibilities. I say “arbitrarily” because pseudo-libertarians have not been notably critical of the judicial impositions that have legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, or of the legislative impositions that have corrupted property rights in the pursuit of “social justice.”

All in all, it seems that pseudo-libertarians believe in the possibility of separating the warp and woof of society without causing the disintegration of the social fabric. The pseudo-libertarian, in that respect, mimics the doctrinaire socialist who wants prosperity but rejects one of its foundation stones: property rights.

A true libertarian will eschew the temptation to prescribe the details of social conduct. He will, instead, take the following positions:

  • The role of the state is to protect individuals from deceit, coercion, and force.
  • The rules of social conduct are adopted voluntarily within that framework are legitimate and libertarian.

There is much more to it than that, of course. So, before anyone challenges my view of what truly constitutes libertarianism, he or she should first read the many posts that I link to at the bottom of this one.

Brennan’s second mistake is to assume that I am interested in libertarian purity. The original title of his post was “Libertarian Purity: Statists in Classical Liberal Clothing”; he calls me a hardcore libertarian; and — following a flawed reconstruction of my argument (about which more, below) — he links to an “antidote,” which is a piece by Alexander McCubin called “Let’s Reject the Purity Test.” But, as a non-libertarian, I am uninterested in libertarian purity.

What I am interested in, in the case of Brennan, many of his co-authors at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and others of their ilk, is how they can call themselves libertarians when they are willing to invoke the power of the state to bring the social and economic order into compliance with their preconceptions of its proper shape. It is not as if I suddenly arrived at that assessment. Here is a list of fourteen earlier posts in which I address various aspects of the contorted libertarianism of BHLs:

The Meaning of Liberty” (03/09/11)
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty” (03/25/11)
More Social Justice” (03/30/11)
On Self-Ownership and Desert” (04/22/11)
Corporations, Unions, and the State” (06/30/11)
In Defense of Subjectivism” (08/02/11)
The Folly of Pacifism, Again” (08/28/11)
What Is Libertarianism?” (09/06/11)
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?” (09/22/11)
Regulation as Wishful Thinking” (10/13/11)
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?” (12/17/11)
The Morality of Occupying Private Property” (12/21/11)
The Equal-Protection Scam and Same-Sex ‘Marriage’” (01/03/12)
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts” (02/13/12)

A third, arguably wrong thing in Brennan’s post is his statement that “Hayek was more ‘statist’ than Zwolinski or I.” I do not know how to measure degrees of statism (perhaps Brennan can tell me), but I respect Hayek and his memory because, for one thing, he did not pretend to be a libertarian. This passage from the Wikipedia article about Hayek comports with what I know of him and his ideas:

Hayek wrote an essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”[94] (included as an appendix to The Constitution of Liberty), in which he disparaged conservatism for its inability to adapt to changing human realities or to offer a positive political program, remarking, “Conservatism is only as good as what it conserves”. Although he noted that modern day conservatism shares many opinions on economics with classic liberals, particularly a belief in the free market, he believed it’s because conservatism wants to “stand still,” whereas liberalism embraces the free market because it “wants to go somewhere”. Hayek identified himself as a classical liberal but noted that in the United States it had become almost impossible to use “liberal” in its original definition, and the term “libertarian” has been used instead.

However, for his part, Hayek found this term “singularly unattractive” and offered the term “Old Whig” (a phrase borrowed from Edmund Burke) instead. In his later life, he said, “I am becoming a Burkean Whig.” However, Whiggery as a political doctrine had little affinity for classical political economy, the tabernacle of the Manchester School and William Gladstone.[95] His essay has served as an inspiration to other liberal-minded economists wishing to distinguish themselves from conservative thinkers, for example James M. Buchanan‘s essay “Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism”.

A common term in much of the world for what Hayek espoused is “neoliberalism“. A British scholar, Samuel Brittan, concluded in 2010, “Hayek’s book [The Constitution of Liberty] is still probably the most comprehensive statement of the underlying ideas of the moderate free market philosophy espoused by neoliberals.”[96]

In Why F A Hayek is a Conservative,[97] British policy analyst Madsen Pirie believes Hayek mistakes the nature of the conservative outlook. Conservatives, he says, are not averse to change – but like Hayek, they are highly averse to change being imposed on the social order by people in authority who think they know how to run things better. They wish to allow the market to function smoothly and give it the freedom to change and develop. It is an outlook, says Pirie, that Hayek and conservatives both share.

If Hayek was, in some respects, more statist than Brennan and company, his essential program was nevertheless more libertarian — by my lights — because it was more grounded in an understanding of and respect for society as a complex organism. That is why I dedicate this blog to Hayek’s memory.

BHLs, in contrast to Hayek, strike me as shallow and naive. They seem to believe that their proposed interventions in the name of “social justice” would (a) work as intended and (b) not invite further interventions from entrenched (and more powerful) interests. Interventions are to the state what raw meat is to a beast. Libertarians should be proposing ways to tame the beast, not feed it.

Which brings me to my final point: Brennan’s reconstruction of an argument (my argument?) that he attributes to “hardcore libertarians”:

  1. Most of the BHLers think that the consequences of different kinds of institutions matter sufficiently that, under at least some hypothetical circumstances, they would not advocate anarcho-capitalism or minimal statism.
  2. If 1, then BHLers are left-statists.
  3. Therefore, BHLers are left-statists.
  4. Either the BHLers are stupid and don’t know they are left-statists, or they are conniving and know they are left-statists.
  5. The BHLers are not stupid. [Thanks for the bone!]
  6. Therefore, the BHLers are conniving and know they are left-statists.

My argument was rather more complex and nuanced than that. I will not replicate or summarize it here; you can read it for yourself. Brennan focuses on one (non-essential) aspect of my argument, the one that offends him — namely, that BHLs are conniving left-statists. Brennan’s post convinces me that I was wrong to imply that BHLs are connivers; they (or too many of them) are just arrogant in their judgments about “social justice” and naive when they presume that the state can enact it. It follows that (most) BHLs are not witting left-statists; they are (too often) just unwitting accomplices of left-statism.

Accordingly, if I were to re-title the offending post I would call it “Bleeding-Heart Libertarians: Crypto-Statists or Dupes for Statism?”.

UPDATE (06/01/12):

I will not respond to every commentary about this post, but I will say some things about “Saving Liberty from the ‘True Libertarians’,” by “dL” of Libérale et libertaire. First, though, I want to thank dL for using an attractive WordPress theme, Suburbia, I liked the look of dL’s blog so much that I switched to Suburbia almost as soon as I had finished reading dL’s post. [06/08/12: I later found and switched to DePo Masthead. It is another multi-column theme, but unlike Suburbia, the front page of DePo Masthead displays complete, properly formatted posts.] [06/12/12: DePo Masthead had drawbacks that were not evident when I previewed it. I am now using NotesIL, which is much like Enterprise, the theme I had used for at least a few years, but with a brighter look and a sidebar on the left.]

Now, for the serious stuff. It would seem that dL did not heed what I say in the original post:

[B]efore anyone challenges my view of what truly constitutes libertarianism, he or she should first read the many posts that I link to at the bottom of this one.

Had dL done what I suggest, he or she would have learned that I do, in fact, accept Hayek’s “evolutionary social framework methodology.” I repeatedly invoke “voluntarily evolved social norms” as the bedrock of a truly libertarian social order.

And why is such a social order “truly libertarian”? Well, it is easy to say, as dL does, that

Liberty is simply defined as “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others.”

This is an empty formulation that is nowhere close to an operational definition of liberty. Real liberty — what I call “true liberty” — is not a string of words on paper, it is a feasible social order. It is — as I say in several of the posts that dL evidently did not read — a modus vivendi. To spare dL (and others) the trouble of digging through my posts, I quote at length from “The Meaning of Liberty“:

[A]t least one of the bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians — a new group blog whose eight contributors (thus far) are professors of law and/or philosophy — advances the proposition that “liberty” means whatever non-philosophers think it means. The contributor in question, Jason Brennan, justifies his preference by saying  that liberty “is a concept philosophers are interested in, but it’s a not a philosopher’s technical term.”

That may be so, but I would think that philosophers who are going to use a term that is central to the theme of their blog — the connection of libertarianism to social justice — would begin by searching for a relevant and logically consistent definition of liberty. Brennan, instead, casts a wide net and hauls in a list of seven popular definitions, one of which (negative liberty) has three sub-definitions. That may be a useful starting point, but Brennan leaves it there, thus implying that liberty is whatever anyone thinks it is….

I am struck by the fact that none of the definitions offered by Brennan is a good definition of liberty (about which, more below)…. I therefore humbly suggest that the next order of business at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism ought to be a concerted effort to define the concept that is part of the blog’s raison d’etre.

To help Brennan & Co. in their quest, I offer the following definition of liberty, which is from the first post at this blog, “On Liberty“:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

The problem with the definitions listed by Brennan should now be obvious. Those definitions focus on the individual, whereas the relevant definition of liberty is a social one. That is to say, one cannot address social justice and its connection to liberty unless liberty is viewed as a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. There is no such thing as the ability to do as one pleases — the dominant motif of Brennan’s list — unless

  • one lives in complete isolation from others, or
  • one lives in the company of others who are of identical minds, or
  • one rules others.

The first condition is irrelevant to the matter of social justice. The second is implausible. The third takes the point of view of a dictator, and omits the point of view of his subjects.

The implausibility of the second condition is critical to a proper understanding of liberty. Brennan says (in “Positive Liberty and Legal Guarantees“) that “[w]e often equate freedom with an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” In a political context (i.e., where two or more persons coexist), there are always constraints on the behavior of at least one person, even in the absence of coercion or force. Coexistence requires compromise because (I daresay) no two humans are alike in their abilities, tastes, and preferences. And compromise necessitates constraints on behavior; that is, compromise means that the parties involved do not do what they would do if they were isolated from each other or of like minds about everything.

In sum, “peaceful, willing coexistence” does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference.” Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of “beneficially cooperative behavior.” Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

The specific landscape of liberty — the rights and obligations of individuals with respect to one another — depends on the size and composition of the social group in question. It is there that the question of positive vs. negative liberty (really positive vs. negative rights) takes on importance. I will tackle that question in a future post.

I would expect dL (and many others) to protest that I hold a morally relative view of what constitutes liberty. I might let that assertion bother me if morality existed as an ideal (Platonic) form, visible to superior beings like dL, but not to mere mortals like me. But morality, itself, arises from the nature of human beings as social animals, a nature that is widely (though not universally) shared across races, ethnicities, and cultures. (On this point, see my posts “Libertarianism and Morality” and “Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote.”) Unlike dL and his or her ilk, I prefer to ground political theory in the possible, not the imaginary ideal.

It seems that dL is especially vexed by what he or she calls my “byline.” This is a slogan that appears near the title of this blog, a slogan that I change from time to time. The current slogan is “Gay ‘marriage’: a tyranny of a minuscule minority.” This, to dL, is evidence that I am a defender of a “’tradition’ is not the actual tradition”; that is, I am anxious to defend a particular status quo instead of allowing social norms to evolve, as a good Hayekian would do.

I do not see how it is unfaithful to conservatism of the Burkean-Hayekian kind to oppose gay “marriage” in the current circumstances. Put simply, we have on the one hand a long-standing social institution that pre-dates the state, and on the other hand a “movement” to redefine that institution through the use of state power: legislative, executive, and judicial. If popular opinion is swinging toward support for gay “marriage,” as has been reported, we can chalk up a good deal of the swing to the influence of state action on popular opinion, and not vice versa. Is that dL’s idea of “actual tradition”?

The “About” page at dL’s blog opens with this quotation:

Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

This is exactly 180 degrees from what is true and feasible in the real world. It is order (of a socially agreed kind) that fosters liberty and defines its precise contours.