Libertarianism and the State

The version of libertarianism that I address here is minarchism: the belief that the state — whether necessary or inevitable — is legitimate only if its functions are limited to the defense of its citizens from foreign and domestic predators. Anarchism — an extreme form of libertarianism — is a pipe dream, for reasons I detail in several posts; e.g., here.

Under minarchism, the order that is necessary to liberty — peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior — is fostered by the institutions of civil society: family, church, club, and the like. Those institutions inculcate morality and enforce it through “social pressure.” The state (ideally) deals only with those persons who violate fundamental canons of behavior toward other persons (e.g., the last six of the Ten Commandments), and also defends the populace from foreign enemies.

Though America is a long way from minarchism, something like it was possible under the Articles of Confederation and in the early decades under the Constitution, when the central government was relatively unobtrusive and most legal constraints on human action were levied by State and local governments. In those conditions, Americans could rid themselves of unwanted social and legal strictures by leaving one State for another or venturing into the relatively ungoverned frontier territories.

Having defined libertarianism (for the purpose of this post), I will now state the surprising conclusion to which I have come: Its adherents are unwitting statists.

Obviously, you will expect — and get — an explanation of that startling statement. I’ll begin with the central tenet of mainstream libertarianism: Individual persons may not be coerced by anyone — state or society — except as their actions may cause harm to others.

That seems like a reasonable position, until you ask what “harm” means. Here’s the author of the harm principle, John Stuart Mill:

[N]either one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action. In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise….

I fully admit that the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those nearly connected with him, and in a minor degree, society at large…. No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.

But with regard to the merely contingent, or, as it may be called, constructive injury which a person causes to society, by conduct which neither violates any specific duty to the public, nor occasions perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself; the inconvenience is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom…. (On Liberty, Chapter IV)

To begin at the end of the quotation, Mill arbitrarily places a higher value on freedom, as an abstract ideal, than he does on the harms that can occur in its name. This kind of mindless devotion to the abstract ideal of freedom, without regard for costs or consequences, is common among libertarians. But freedom means nothing if it can’t be described without reference to the real-world conditions of human existence. To appeal to freedom as an abstract desideratum — superior to whatever alternative is being rejected in its name — is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and, simultaneously, the nirvana fallacy. Freedom, as philosopher Jamie Whyte would say, is a “hooray word”: “Declare you are in favor of” freedom “and everyone will cheer his agreement, even if he disagrees with you in every particular question of what” freedom means (Bad Thoughts, p. 61).

What about the harms that Mill (and his followers unto this day) dismiss as “neither violat[ing] any specific duty … nor occasion[ing] perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself”? Who is fit to make the judgment as to whether a particular action constitutes a “hurt,” the members of the society whose norms have been violated or “rational” observers, like Mill? Society — properly understood — is a tightly woven fabric, individual strands of which can’t be plucked without damaging the whole. Rationalists and “reformers” tend to focus on the parts of society that they want to change, without considering the effects of change on the well-being of society. (I will come to a salient example, below.)

Friedrich Hayek sees through Mill’s rationalism:

[T]rue individualism … began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke–the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them. In the nineteenth century I find it represented most perfectly in the work of two of its greatest historians and political philosophers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton…. [T]he classical economists of the nineteenth century, or at least the Benthamites or philosophical radicals among them, came increasingly under the influence of another kind of individualism of different origin.

This second and altogether different strand of thought, also known as individualism, is represented mainly by French and other Continental writers–a fact due, I believe, to the dominant role which Cartesian rationalism plays in its composition…. [T]his rationalistic individualism always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism. It is because only the first kind of individualism is consistent that I claim for it the name of true individualism, while the second kind must probably be regarded as a source of modern socialism as important as the properly collectivist theories….

What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them….

Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society … are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse… That the existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people will enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background, is, of course, a commonplace….

This brings me to … the necessity, in any complex society in which the effects of anyone’s action reach far beyond his possible range of vision, of the individual submitting to the anonymous and seemingly irrational forces of society–a submission which must include not only the acceptance of rules of behavior as valid without examining what depends in the particular instance on their being observed but also a readiness to adjust himself to changes which may profoundly affect his fortunes and opportunities and the causes of which may be altogether unintelligible to him. It is against these that modern man tends to revolt unless their necessity can be shown to rest upon “reason made clear and demonstrable to every individual.”

Yet it is just here that the understandable craving for intelligibility produces illusory demands which no system can satisfy….

The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning, is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement…. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan… They are the results of that same rationalistic “individualism” which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible….

This cult of the distinct and different individuality has, of course, deep roots in the German intellectual tradition and, through the influence of some of its greatest exponents, especially Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt, has made itself felt far beyond Germany and is clearly seen in J. S. Mill’s [On] Liberty. This sort of “individualism” not only has nothing to do with true individualism but may indeed prove a grave obstacle to the smooth working of an individualist system…. [I]f people are too “individualistic” in the false sense, if they are too unwilling voluntarily to conform to traditions and conventions, and if they refuse to recognize anything which is not consciously designed or which cannot be demonstrated as rational to every individual. It is at least understandable that the prevalence of this kind of “individualism” has often made people of good will despair of the possibility of achieving order in a free society and even made them ask for a- dictatorial government with the power to impose on society the order which it will not produce itself. (Individualism and Economic Order, Chapter I)

Consider Mill’s defense of the drunkard. Mill speaks of “punishment” as if that were the only alternative, and he sets up dereliction of duty as the only kind of act stemming from drunkenness that ought to be punished. But an habitual drunk does great damage to those around him, by failing to provide properly for his wife and children, by performing his job to less than his ability, by causing accidents that can harm others as well as himself, and so on. When there was such a thing as society — before it was constructively eradicated by the state’s usurpation and suppression of traditional functions of civil society (e.g., education, charity, religious expression) — a drunkard would have been an object of scorn and opprobrium. Whether or not a particular drunkard would have changed his ways because of scorn and opprobrium, observant fellows would have seen in his treatment an object lesson.

In any event, social justice of the true kind — the reaction of society to those who offend against its norms — serves a civilizing function that the state simply cannot duplicate. The state is a rule-bound, reactive institution, unlike the kind of living institution that is found in true society: an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

This brings me to the example that I promised earlier: abortion. At the time of the founding of the United States, abortion was widely prohibited under common law. Statutory prohibitions followed throughout the 19th century. Before Roe v. Wade (1973), only four States allowed abortions without restrictions; 16 States allowed abortions in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother’s health, or fetal damage; abortion was simply not allowed in the other 30 States. The prevailing restrictions are consistent with the historical condemnation of abortion (at some stage of fetal development) by most religions. (It is irrelevant to this discussion that some faiths and denominations have, in the years since Roe v. Wade, changed their dogmas in an attempt to be “relevant.”)

In sum, the widespread proscription of abortion in the United States enjoyed broad and deep support for almost two centuries. One could reasonably call condemnation of abortion a social norm. Special pleading in favor of abortion, which led to the pro-abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade, contributed greatly to the division of America that runs along the fault lines of the culture war and the proper role of government.

Did the social engineers who foisted legalized abortion on America mean to weaken the already strained bonds of trust among Americans? Probably not, but neither is it likely that they gave the prospect of social division much thought, or if they did they probably didn’t care about it. (I have no doubt about the equally reckless and insouciant attitudes of the social engineers who put the full force of law behind reverse racism, and who are now trying to do the same for homosexual “marriage.”)

This is what happens when social norms are overturned by do-gooders. Which brings me to the do-gooders who call themselves libertarians. They claim to be against the intrusion of the state into social arrangements — except when those social arrangements don’t suit them. They are the false individualists of whom Hayek writes.

The widespread prohibition of abortion, by law, reflected a deep-seated social norm. The desire of most whites to avoid forced association with blacks reflected (and reflects) valid observations about differences in culture, behavior, and intelligence. The desire of most heterosexuals to preserve the traditional definition of marriage reflected (and still reflects) their rightful abhorrence of a perverse “lifestyle” and visceral understanding that redefining marriage will weaken it, and thus weaken its civilizing influence. But such truths matter not to a false individualist, who cannot see the forest of society for the trees of their individual whims.

And so, when a libertarian (really a pseudo-libertarian) wants to enact his particular anti-social social agenda, where does he turn? He turns to the state and implores it to intervene in social matters, without thinking of or caring about the consequences. Because the (psuedo) libertarian — like Mill — is bedazzled by “freedom” from social restraints. In that respect, it’s hard to tell a (pseudo) libertarian from a “liberal; both want to strike down social restraints that they dislike, in favor of state-imposed restraints that are to their liking.

Thus do (pseudo) libertarians (and “liberal”) shred the bonds of trust that enable a people to live in liberty, which is not the same thing as “freedom” from social restraints. As Hayek puts it:

[T]he existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people … enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background.

Or, as I have said, liberty is a state of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Such a state is unattainable where the “conventions and traditions” that underlie mutual trust are demolished willy-nilly in the name of “freedom.”

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Related posts:
The Cost of Affirmative Action
It Can Happen Here: Eugenics, Abortion, Euthanasia, and Mental Screening
Affirmative Action: A Modest Proposal
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy
Affirmative Action, One More Time
A Contrarian View of Segregation
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
After the Bell Curve
A Footnote . . .
Schelling and Segregation
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
An Argument Against Abortion
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
The Case against Genetic Engineering
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
On Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
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
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
“Conversing” about Race
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
“We the People” and Big Government
Evolution and Race
The Culture War
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Getting Liberty Wrong
Surrender? Hell No!