Whenever you happen to start finding yourself attracted to a particular philosophy, whether political or otherwise, it is important to attack it with all the intellectual might you can summon. Philosophies are powerful forces. They can shape a society for better or for ill. Just as each of us individually should think before he acts, so also society must have some means of contemplating various paths before it takes one. There is no other way for society to do that other than for individuals within it to do the thinking themselves, and engage in conversation with each other.
In that spirit, let me now enumerate my qualms with the philosophy generally called “libertarianism” in our day. Although the history of both that word at the philosophy with which I am dealing is a bit complicated, I will generally take for granted that anyone reading this is more or less familiar with the kinds of ideas I’m talking about. Libertarians believe in individual rights, including rights to life, liberty, and property. They believe in limited government (or, in the case of anarchocapitalists, no government at all) and they think that the mark of a good society is a minimal use of force and coercion. Libertarians believe in free markets and civil liberties: they don’t believe anyone should interfere with what we buy and sell, where we choose to live, who we choose to associate with, what we choose to say or believe, or how we choose to use our own property.
I find that there is much to appreciate about libertarianism, and politically I more or less identify as a libertarian because there is no broader category that defines my political beliefs. However, progress is never achieved by speaking only in generalities. Here I want to nail down some specific major objections (or at least qualms) I have concerning the ideas that usually fall under the label “libertarian.”
1. Personal Autonomy
My first objection to libertarianism is philosophical in nature. Libertarians often make two claims about personal autonomy. The first is that people are autonomous, and the second is that they should be left to their autonomy. Let me take each of these claims in order.
The first claim: all people are autonomous individuals. This is plainly false. Indeed, there would be absolutely no reason for a market economy if this were true. There is simply no way the number of human beings currently living could actually live if not for the fact that they cooperate with one another. Libertarians who equate free market economics with the idea that everyone should be left alone to fend for himself are only helping the opposition, since everyone knows we can’t simply fend for ourselves and hope to survive.
No one acts independently of all other people. We all make decisions based on the morals, beliefs, and customs of other people around us. This is most obvious when we think of the obvious fact that we all come into this world as children. We learn the most basic skills which enable us to survive from our parents. Only gradually do we gain a greater degree of independence, and this independence is never absolute. Even the most independent among us will have to base his decisions on the decisions made by others.
This is more than an abstract philosophical point. Have you ever noticed how little libertarians have to say about the lives of children? Can a libertarian who supports the legalization of prostitution make a coherent argument against child prostitution? Why is a 17 year-old off limits when an 18 year-old has the right to do what she wants with her body? It is simply impossible to come up with a coherent position if we imagine that at some point people magically turn into autonomous adults.
Indeed, the idea of absolute personal autonomy is what leads to many of the major pitfalls of liberalism, which libertarians hate so much. If all people are simply autonomous individuals, then the only way to prevent them from destroying each other is through a powerful state. In the real world, liberty works precisely because we are not autonomous individuals. Rather, we rely on a highly complex set of institutions, many of which have no formal existence, and which arise through a process of cultural evolution, rather than human design.
The second claim: all people ought to be left alone to make their own decisions. If absolute personal autonomy does not exist, then insisting that society ought to protect it is nonsensical. If our goal is to defend liberty, then we need a definition of “liberty” which refers to something real. Perhaps in the near future, I will provide such a definition of my own. For now, I think it will do to refer to F. A. Hayek’s definition from The Constitution of Liberty, in which he defines a free society as one in which coercion is minimized. Defining “coercion” is complicated, of course, and I’ll simply ask the reader to read his book for some ideas.
It is common for libertarians to claim that the government should not legislate morality. This is a piece of rhetoric which is also popular among liberals, and it is so pervasive that most people in our country have a hard time seeing just how silly it is. All law is legislated morality. If a law isn’t about right and wrong, it probably shouldn’t be a law!
The objection typically raised to all sorts of legislation is that we shouldn’t use legislation to impose our “personal morality” on others. For instance, Christians who might oppose homosexual practice should not use the law to forbid it. The principle underlying this claim is that all people should be allowed to make any choice they want about their own lives, so long as it does not hurt anyone. This is a worthy principle—don’t misunderstand me—but it is, indeed, a moral principle.
The question is not whether we are going to legislate morality. The question is, what moral principles should guide our legislation? We certainly cannot legislate all morality, as numerous examples will illustrate. For instance, most of us agree that it is wrong to insult other people and hurt their feelings. But no one would suggest that the government should pass a law banning such insults. Why not? Because most of us also realize that such things can easily be resolved without the use of government force, and it would be wrong to use force wherever it is unnecessary--not to mention the waste of resources involved in using such extraordinary means to solve such a trivial problem.
Libertarians have a long intellectual tradition with some good ideas about which morals should guide legislation. Such principles include equal rights for all individuals and the principle of non-aggression. These principles may be flawed or not, but they are certainly moral principles, and they should be compared to other moral principles, rather than treated as above or outside of morality. Essentially, I am not here criticizing the ideas of libertarians so much as their rhetoric.
I have on occasion heard libertarians complain that Thomas Jefferson should have kept the trio “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as “life, liberty, and property.” This fixation on property rights gives libertarianism a decidedly right-wing feel, at least in present-day America. In many ways I applaud libertarians for their emphasis on personal property, but I think it needs to be grounded in a proper moral framework.
In particular, I don’t think human beings are always entitled to use things in whatever way they desire. This is an especially important point to make in an age when we are most aware of the damage we have done to the earth. If libertarians are silent about environmental concerns, then the movement is either irrelevant or possibly even dangerous. Besides, it is hardly self-evident that human beings are entitled to own pieces of land and do with them what we please.
Ownership is not so much a matter of people have power over things as it is a way of establishing parameters for human cooperation. That is why some form of property rights is inevitable, radical left-wing claims notwithstanding. If we are going to have any interaction with the physical world whatsoever, we are eventually going to be faced with the question of how we share it. A political system with no property rights is implicitly a system of collectivist property rights, which inevitably means a powerful governing authority must take charge of setting guidelines for the use of valuable resources.
Libertarians are right to critique collectivist property rights, because such a system must rely on concentrated power and coercion. However, it is also the case the personal property rights depend on coercion. For instance, if a bank has the right to trade a loan for interest on that loan, then in the future it will have the right to coerce me based on a decision I make now. The question the libertarian should ask himself is whether the current system of property rights actually minimizes coercion. Too often libertarians are fixated on the economic question of efficiency and prosperity and not, ironically enough, on the question of liberty.
I happen to think that banks should be allowed to charge interest (yet certainly not without exception). Nevertheless, we ought to recognize that this rule depends on a common acceptance of property rights which have not always been deemed acceptable in the course of human civilization. There might be good reasons for that. Libertarians should not be mere defenders of the status quo, but should constantly be reassessing how well our current notion of property works in favor of liberty. Perhaps it is worth bringing up old controversies in the hopes of shedding new light on our present situation, especially as protestors call for debt forgiveness and tighter regulations on banks.
This concludes my critique of libertarianism, which is not to say I’ve covered every flaw. In future posts, I’ll try to offer something more constructive by suggesting ways in which libertarians could more clearly define a sound political philosophy. I would like to conclude by affirming that I do think liberty is the most valuable trait of our society, and that we ought to work to defend it. But if we don’t take the time to think about what we mean by this, we’ll find ourselves drifting in a direction none of us wanted.