Saturday, February 2, 2013

Debaters of the Lost Minarchs

Arnold Kling has capped off a great conversation with Michael Humer and Bryan Caplan about why non-libertarians reject libertarianism (you can follow links back through Kling's various posts). Kling ultimately comes to the conclusion that the moral case for libertarianism isn't appealing to lots of people and the consequentialist case should be emphasized. As someone who has rejected the moral case for libertarianism but been persuaded to support a lot of libertarian policies on consequentialist grounds, that sounds about right to me.

But that still leaves the question, why *do* people reject the moral case for libertarianism, rooted in freedom and the harm principle? I've been thinking about why I reject it, and this is what I've come up with:

1. It doesn't accord with my every-day reality. In our society, only bad people live according to the harm principle (IE, the ability to use force to defend yourself and your property is heavily limited.  You can't use force to retrieve stolen property or property owed to you, can't use lethal force to protect property, can't use force to protect yourself from a non-imminent but very real threat, etc.  The state can do all these things).  It seems weird to take behavior that is illegal and immoral in the context of our society and then say everyone has a natural right to do it.

2. It's not simple. Take a basic statement of the harm principle, "the only purpose for which power can be
rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." That is, on its face, not a libertarian statement. Taking money from person A and giving it to starving person B arguably prevents harm from happening to B.  

To get to libertarianism, you have to start with a more complex harm principle, something like, "the only justifiable use of force is to protect people and their property from the force of others."  But now we have to come up with an argument for how materials in nature can morally be converted to property, what other ways I can morally acquire property, the extent of my property rights, define "uses of force" (IE, is a harmless trespass on your property really a use of force?  Is conversion by fraud?  Many thieves do not use coercion or the threat of coercion, they are just sneaky), explain how we can enforce contracts (are contracts really just a subset of property rights?), etc.  Nozick got this: it is hard to prove that people should adopt a minarchy from first principles.  He was constantly being forced to make subtle distinctions, to paper over whole genres of argument, to say "we need to think harder about this," etc.  I'll keep re-reading Nozick and keep reading others, but the moral argument for libertarianism is complex, has to answer lots of questions, and, to my mind, has not done so satisfactorily in a number of instances.  I suppose I'll keep blogging about what all those are in future posts.

3.  Libertarians seem to miss a lot of basic moral impulses.  People like fair shakes, like equality of opportunity,  dislike gross inequality in results, abhor human suffering, and are willing to tolerate, praise, and even force redistribution as a result.  There are a lot of contradictory impulses that animate our intuitive moral senses, and "enforce the harm principle" is only one of them. Robin Hood isn't a hero because he fights taxes, he's a hero because he fights unjust taxes and because he redistributes wealth. 

4. Once you get away from talking about the harm principle and start talking about maximizing freedom and minimizing coercion, it's not clear to me from first principles that libertarian states do that.  On the one hand, "freedom" and "coercion" have dimensions beyond "freedom from state coercion." On the other, it's not clear to me that a minarchy would actually coerce people less than a state with more powers.

5. Libertarians don't seem to pay much attention to culture and how government interacts with culture.  I once said on this blog that when a big man with a club meets a little man with a prosperous farm in the state of nature, a conservative worries the barbaric big man will kill and loot the little man, the liberal worries the brutish big man will enslave and rule over the little man, and the libertarian thinks they'll work out a contract by which the little man pays the big man for defense.  In point of fact we don't know what would happen, because it would depend entirely on the cultures, dispositions, and circumstances of the two dudes.  Same tribe?  Different tribes?  Warring tribes?  No tribes?  Ingrained cultural norms about hospitality?  Etc.  Libertarians seem to me to have a one-size-fits-all solution, when it seems to me that a minarchy (and certainly anarcho-syndicalism) could only work under a limited, some-what fantastical and a-historical set of cultural norms.  To a large extent this is a consequentialist critique, but it bleeds over into a philosophical one -- the philosophical libertarian argument would be stronger if it addressed a variety of societies full of a variety of people, rather than limiting itself (mostly) to state-of-nature societies full of pretty rational people.  

6. While we are on the subject, it is not obvious to me that state of nature analysis beats veil of ignorance analysis, or why either is better than using the real world as a starting point.

7. To be clear, I don't think anyone has made a first-principles case for why the state should have lots of power either.  Again, to me it comes down to consequentialism. 

8. My consequentialist analysis heavily tinges all this.  I think a minarchy, much less anarcho-syndicalism, would suck.  

No comments:

Post a Comment