A Philosopher's Blog

Is Libertarianism Viable

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2015

The United States has had a libertarian and anarchist thread since the beginning, which is certainly appropriate for a nation that espouses individual liberty and expresses distrust of the state. While there are many versions of libertarianism and these range across the political spectrum, I will focus on one key aspect of libertarianism. To be specific, I will focus on the idea that the government should impose minimal limits on individual liberty and that there should be little, if any, state regulation of business. These principles were laid out fairly clearly by the American anarchist Henry David Thoreau in his claims that the best government governs least (or not at all) and that government only advances business by getting out of its way.

I must admit that I find the libertarian-anarchist approach very appealing. Like many politically minded young folks, I experimented with a variety of political theories in college. I found Marxism unappealing—as a metaphysical dualist, I must reject materialism. Also, I was well aware of the brutally oppressive and murderous nature of the Marxists states and they were in direct opposition to both my ethics and my view of liberty. Fascism was certainly right out—the idea of the total state ran against my views of liberty. Since, like many young folks, I thought I knew everything and did not want anyone to tell me what to do, I picked anarchism as my theory of choice. Since I am morally opposed to murdering people, even for a cause, I sided with the non-murderous anarchists, such as Thoreau. I eventually outgrew anarchism, but I still have many fond memories of my halcyon days of naïve political views. As such, I do really like libertarian-anarchism and really want it to be viable. But, I know that liking something does not entail that it is viable (or a good idea).

Put in extremely general terms, a libertarian system would have a minimal state with extremely limited government impositions on personal liberty. The same minimalism would also extend to the realm of business—they would operate with little or no state control. Since such a system seems to maximize liberty and freedom, it seems to be initially very appealing. After all, freedom and liberty are good and more of a good thing is better than less. Except when it is not.

It might be wondered how more liberty and freedom is not always better than less. I find two of the stock answers both appealing and plausible. One was laid out by Thomas Hobbes. In discussing the state of nature (which is a form of anarchism—there is no state) he notes that total liberty (the right to everything) amounts to no right at all. This is because everyone is free to do anything and everyone has the right to claim (and take) anything. This leads to his infamous war of all against all, making life “nasty, brutish and short.” Like too much oxygen, too much liberty can be fatal. Hobbes solution is the social contract and the sovereign: the state.

A second one was present by J.S. Mill. In his discussion of liberty he argued that liberty requires limitations on liberty. While this might seem like a paradox or a slogan from Big Brother, Mill is actually quite right in a straightforward way. For example, your right to free expression requires that my right to silence you be limited. As another example, your right to life requires limits on my right to kill. As such, liberty does require restrictions on liberty. Mill does not limit the limiting of liberty to the state—society can impose such limits as well.

Given the plausibility of the arguments of Hobbes and Mill, it seems reasonable to accept that there must be limits on liberty in order for there to be liberty. Libertarians, who usually fall short of being true anarchists, do accept this. However, they do want the broadest possible liberties and the least possible restrictions on business.

In theory, this would appear to show that the theory provides the basis for a viable political system. After all, if libertarianism is the view that the state should impose the minimal restrictions needed to have a viable society, then it would be (by definition) a viable system. However, there is the matter of libertarianism in practice and also the question of what counts as a viable political system.

Looked at in a minimal sense, a viable political system would seem to be one that can maintain its borders and internal order. Meeting this two minimal objectives would seem to be possible for a libertarian state, at least for a while. That said, the standards for a viable state might be taken to be somewhat higher, such as the state being able to (as per Locke) protect rights and provide for the good of the people. It can (and has) been argued that such a state would need to be more robust than the libertarian state. It can also be argued that a true libertarian state would either devolve into chaos or be forced into abandoning libertarianism.

In any case, the viability of libertarian state would seem to depend on two main factors. The first is the ethics of the individuals composing the state. The second is the relative power of the individuals. This is because the state is supposed to be minimal, so that limits on behavior must be set largely by other factors.

In regards to ethics, people who are moral can be relied on to self-regulate their behavior to the degree they are moral. To the degree that the population is moral the state does not need to impose limitations on behavior, since the citizens will generally not behave in ways that require the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. As such, liberty would seem to require a degree of morality on the part of the citizens that is inversely proportional to the limitations imposed by the state. Put roughly, good people do not need to be coerced by the state into being good. As such, a libertarian state can be viable to the degree that people are morally good. While some thinkers have faith in the basic decency of people, many (such as Hobbes) regard humans as lacking in what others would call goodness. Hence, the usual arguments about how the moral failings of humans requires the existence of the coercive state.

In regards to the second factor, having liberty without an external coercive force maintaining the liberty would require that the citizens be comparable in political, social and economic power. If some people have greater power they can easily use this power to impose on their fellow citizens. While the freedom to act with few (or no) limits is certainly a great deal for those with greater power, it certainly is not very good for those who have less power. In such a system, the powerful are free to do as they will, while the weaker people are denied their liberties. While such a system might be libertarian in name, freedom and liberty would belong to the powerful and the weaker would be denied. That is, it would be a despotism or tyranny.

If people are comparable in power or can form social, political and economic groups that are comparable in power, then liberty for all would be possible—individuals and groups would be able to resist the encroachments of others. Unions, for example, could be formed to offset the power of corporations. Not surprisingly, stable societies are able to build such balances of power to avoid the slide into despotism and then to chaos. Stable societies also have governments that endeavor to protect the liberties of everyone by placing limits on how much people can inflict their liberties on other people. As noted above, people can also be restrained by their ethics. If people and groups varied in power, yet abided by the limits of ethical behavior, then things could still go well for even the weak.

Interestingly, a balance of power might actually be disastrous. Hobbes argued that it is because people are equal in power that the state of nature is a state of war. This rests on his view that people are hedonistic egoists—that is, people are basically selfish and care not about other people.

Obviously enough, in the actual world people and groups vary greatly in power. Not surprisingly, many of the main advocates of libertarianism enjoy considerable political and economic power—they would presumably do very well in a system that removed many of the limitations upon them since they would be freer to do as they wished and the weaker people and groups would be unable to stop them.

At this point, one might insist on a third factor that is beloved by the Adam Smith crowd: rational self-interest. The usual claim is that people would limit their behavior because of the consequences arising from their actions. For example, a business that served contaminated meat would soon find itself out of business because the survivors would stop buying the meat and spread the word. As another example, an employer who used his power to compel his workers to work long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay would find that no one would be willing to work for him and would be forced to improve things to retain workers. As a third example, people would not commit misdeeds because they would be condemned or punished by vigilante justice. The invisible hand would sort things out, even if people are not good and there is a great disparity in power.

The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of system generally does not work very well—as shown by history. If there is a disparity in power, that power will be used to prevent negative consequences. For example, those who have economic power can use that power to coerce people into working for low pay and can also use that power to try to keep them from organizing to create a power that can resist this economic power. This is why, obviously enough, people like the Koch brothers oppose unions.

Interestingly, most people get that rational self-interest does not suffice to keep people from acting badly in regards to crimes such as murder, theft, extortion, assault and rape. However, there is the odd view that rational self-interest will somehow work to keep people from acting badly in other areas. This, as Hobbes would say, arises from an insufficient understanding of humans. Or is a deceit on the part of people who have the power to do wrong and get away with it.

While I do like the idea of libertarianism, a viable libertarian society would seem to require people who are predominantly ethical (and thus self-regulating) or a careful balance of power. Or, alternatively, a world in which people are rational and act from self-interest in ways that would maintain social order. This is clearly not our world.

 

 

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  1. Glen Wallace said, on June 29, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    I think there is often an important confusion between ‘government’ the verb, ie that which governs the matters and actions of the people and their businesses, and ‘government’ the noun, ie those entities owned and operated by the people. While there is sometimes overlap with the verb and noun governments, not all verb governments are publicly owned organizations. Perhaps the two most powerful privately owned and operated organizations with broad governing powers over the public sphere are the Federal Reserve and the American Medical Association. Both organizations have been given by congress the ability to determine to a great degree how the banks we use are run, how much interest we get on our accounts their, how much we have to pay in interest on a loan and the management of our nations money supply and how medicine is practiced in this country respectively. I think the greatest dangers to our freedoms occur when verb governments are privately owned entities because the door is opened wide to conflicts of interest between business and public interests. Anytime where business interests are given the upper hand in acting in the role of ‘big brother knows best’ over the people, such an advantage is given to business there exists a real danger of a plutocratic oligarchy being created. The problem in the plutocratic oligarchy, which we quickly devolving into here in the US, is that it only takes a few ‘bad apples’ to create a dystopic tyranny, despite the general goodness of the rest of the population.

    I’m left wondering, in Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ whether he was referring to the verb or the noun government when he was writing about how the government never does anything significant like settling the west and educating. If he was talking about the verb ‘government’ I would respond that, of course that form of government didn’t do those sorts of things because, by its nature, it is acting in a limiting rather than creating role. As I recall, for a time Thoreau was a school teacher. Were all schools back then private. Now days, with public schools, the noun ‘government’ can be very much said to be educating. Too bad, also, that Thoreau couldn’t have seen into the future and seen the public NASA make it the the moon, or the building of our public highway system or the public system of locks and dams that keep our rivers navigable for recreation and commerce. I think Thoreau maybe would also have thought different about the verb government had he seen into the future all the poisoning of the environment by industry and all the toxic, dangerous products business have attempted to peddle to the unknowing public.

    Interestingly, Thoreau was part of the loosely knit group, the New England Transcendentalists, who created such experiments as Brook Farm, which would best be described as a libertarian communist experiment. Libertarian communism is the form of government that is closest to what I advocate for and wrote about in my essay ‘The Freedom That Communism Brings’ http://phispring.com/freedom%20communism.html. While it may seem like a contradiction in terms, the reality is just the opposite. Very briefly, freedom is maximized through extensive public ownership, the noun form of government, where the public can roam freely without all the gates and fences of private capitalist ownership imprisoning people in their own country. Fortunately we already have some some extensive communism, as in communal or public ownership, but unfortunately is often taken for granted, in the form of public roads, sidewalks and parks where we the people can roam freely regardless of the size of their pocketbooks and bank accounts. There actually has been some organized forms of libertarian communism that never found much implementation in real governments the way what I call Hegelian Communism was in the 20th century. I think the reason for the lack of implementation may be a function of the potential success of libertarian communism. Any success would present a necessary threat to the hegemony of power for any form of oligarchy and therefore has given them strong incentive to suppress any budding libertarian communist movement.

    • Joe said, on April 4, 2016 at 6:00 pm

      It seems to me that those who dismiss libertarianism, that is a full, scopious type of liberty that is contradicted in only one small way; that is the financing of a tiny state who’s sense of life is only awakened to protect the liberty of the people in the state, go full tilt to the other side and promote an expansive government as the only way to maximize freedom.

      For me it comes down to the philosophical first, and then we can tend to the utilitarian. Do I have the right to initiate force against anyone or any group to promote my own ends or what I view as the correct social objectives for society? And do I have the warrant or jurisdiction to hand this particular exercise over to a third party such as a state.

      • Glen Wallace said, on April 5, 2016 at 4:42 am

        The question then arises, what constitutes ‘initiating force against anyone or any group’? For instance, would the government merely altering some county records to show that some factory farm property lines have been pulled in just a little without permission from the farm owner constitute an act of force against that owner? Ontologically, it seems like there would be no identity between the factory farm owner and the land their name happens to be written on in some piece of paper or computer screen in the County records. However, if those property lines that once were part of the massive factory farm, now instead draws in a small communal organic farm, think of all the new freedoms of opportunity that would arise for the new tenants of that farm — not to mention the economic windfall to the financially struggling small farm towns that would be located close to the new communal farms.

        • Joe said, on April 5, 2016 at 7:10 am

          One cannot create a new right or achieve liberty for himself or others by taking the same away from another. The principle remains the same if it is a gross violation or an itsy bitsy tinkering with paperwork (although chances are it would not cause a ruckus).

          Property rights are a natural derivative and are inferred directly from the natural right of self ownership, which without man must come under involuntary subjection to another or others.

          <<>>

          That would be a nice result, but it would still violate the above. Again, can we, morally, and more importantly, in a fluid society, should we violate the principle of non aggression, inherent in the foundation of the existence of the individual. and take anything from anyone to make a better life for another?

          • Joe said, on April 5, 2016 at 7:12 am

            I somehow did not add this quote correctly before my last paragraph: “However, if those property lines that once were part of the massive factory farm, now instead draws in a small communal organic farm, think of all the new freedoms of opportunity that would arise for the new tenants of that farm — not to mention the economic windfall to the financially struggling small farm towns that would be located close to the new communal farms.”

          • Glen Wallace said, on April 6, 2016 at 1:44 am

            I don’t see how property rights are a natural derivative. And even if an attempt were made to make such a derivation, I don’t see how it could be done without violating the naturalistic fallacy — confusing what is the case (in nature) with what should be the case (in the governing of a human civilization).

            Real estate property borders are merely the creations of fallible humans operating within a fallible legal system that can and often does make errors not only of a positive nature but also normative nature as well. When errors are found, such as finding that one factory farm should not have been granted as much land as they were given, then it is incumbent on society to rectify that error.

            In the U.S. we are living within a political system that is identified as a representative democracy, but due to all the corruption and cronyism our system is neither democratic nor republican. Therefore, the system that the plutocrats have benefited from financially is a fraudulent system. There is in place a legal principle to attempt to rectify fraud and it is called a clawback. Just as the victims of Madoff’s were entitled to get back money via a clawback from the profiteers of the scheme, even if those profiteers were neither knowledgeable nor complicit in the fraud, so do the less fortunate citizens of the U.S. deserve to get material benefit from the profiteers of our fraudulent system via a wealth redistribution clawback.

            • Joe said, on April 6, 2016 at 4:11 am

              I’ll take you up on the “Property rights are a natural derivative and are inferred directly from the natural right of self ownership, which without man must come under involuntary subjection to another or others” bit. Without the right to ownership of goods, self ownership is meaningless. Unless I can have (at least in theory) the right to the fruit of my labor (self ownership) ( a tie, a car, land, just about anything) then the idea of self ownership is meaningless, thus the ability to attain and hold property of any kind is embedded in the whole proposition. Or…if I am the recipient of a gift (inheritance) then the right referred to clocks in with the right of the benefactor.

              You are correct that the plutocrats have benefited from this system. It is a system of crony capitalism, not true free markets Less democracy and more liberty is, in my opinion, the fix for this sick system.

            • Joe said, on April 6, 2016 at 8:22 am

              Glen, you said “There is in place a legal principle to attempt to rectify fraud and it is called a clawback. Just as the victims of Madoff’s were entitled to get back money via a clawback from the profiteers of the scheme, even if those profiteers were neither knowledgeable nor complicit in the fraud, so do the less fortunate citizens of the U.S. deserve to get material benefit from the profiteers of our fraudulent system via a wealth redistribution clawback”.

              OK, but how far back to you go; reparations for dependents of slaves…land reform for the Native Americans…it can on and on and philosophically though there is an argument there (though I would take issue with it’s utility and having the sins of the father paid for by the son). All that Blacks and Indians have suffered should have been addressed at the time of the crimes. Land redistribution would have been a valid remedy in 1866, and it should have occurred. The former slaves, held under an inhuman system deserved recompense, and the Union should have taken land away from the slaveholders and parceled it out to those who were formally held in a state of servitude. The fact that the United States Government left Black folks high and dry when they pulled out of the south and ended Reconstruction is a crime. But what does one do about it NOW?

              Same for the American Indian, and Mexico for that matter. But no one who was complicit in those matters is alive today. At some point the facts of practicality kick in. AND who do we pay? Those who’s land and lives were destroyed are dead. We cannot make them whole. I know this is a shameful thing. But at what point is there a cut-off?

              You cannot morally rectify a crime by punishing the innocent and awarding the non-victims. And if you wish to make the point that Black and Indians suffer today because of the crimes of the USA, you are right.

              But see above for my answer.

              Joe

  2. ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 4:04 am

    Glen

    Isn’t the limiting factor of libertarian communism or even libertarianism itself the fact that while small experiments may and do succeed, in the general population there is no such self selection? What works for a small, motivated and committed group that possibly know each other may not translate into society at large.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 7:47 am

    Of course no real libertarians fit the caricature Mike creates. Here is the kind of stuff actual living, breathing libertarians care about (extra points if you notice the mention of Charles Koch):

  4. T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 8:11 am

    Meanwhile, Mike apparently has no problems with this:

    New Yorkers may soon not be able to smoke in their own homes, if Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gets his way.

    The New York Post reported on de Blasio’s new initiative to partner with health groups that will “pressure landlords” into banning smoking in apartment buildings.

    “That means smokers would be barred from lighting up in one of their last sanctuaries: their own living quarters,” the paper said. “Smoking is already banned in public places, including bars and restaurants, workplaces, sports venues, and parks.”

    http://freebeacon.com/issues/bill-de-blasio-hates-freedom/

    • ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 9:20 am

      TJ

      So below blacks and rednecks is the absolute lowest of the low…….smokers……..

      • T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 9:33 am

        Social rank is now determined by victim status, so as rednecks and smokers have no claim to victimhood they score much lower than blacks.

        I would score it something like this:

        Group Status
        blacks 10
        gays 9
        Am. Indians 8
        hispanics 7
        women 5
        men 0
        overweight -5
        redneck -8
        smoker -9

        • T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 9:34 am

          Lest I forget:

          Muslims 7

      • WTP said, on June 30, 2015 at 9:37 am

        Male redneck smokers. But there are lower lows. The turncoats from class/race war. Black conservatives. Especially black women conservatives. In the words of Louis Farrakhan, “Condoleezza is a skeeza”. Not entirely sure there is a definition as to what specifically constitutes a “skeeza” but you can do the interpolation.

        • ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 10:57 am

          I don’t know much about Louis Farrakhan but he does seem to be a cut above the average politician in one aspect in that he says what he thinks, or is just my ignorance talking?

          It’s just that I despise politicians and public figures that talk out of both sides of their mouth.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Christians -3

  6. T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 9:40 am

    Asians -2
    Jews -2

  7. T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Sorry, Magus:

    Servicemembers -5

    • ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 11:02 am

      Is there a world championship for this? You know, black disabled lesbian gets trumped by transracial, trans species transgender transfat(with a slight limp) for the world title of the most virtuous person of the year? It would be more entertaining than the Eurovision song contest at least.

  8. T. J. Babson said, on June 30, 2015 at 11:57 am

    Taylor Swift, victim:

    I didn’t see myself being held back until I was a woman. Or the double standards in headlines, the double standards in the way stories are told, the double standards in the way things are perceived. A man writing about his feelings from a vulnerable place is brave; a woman writing about her feelings from a vulnerable place is oversharing or whining. Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born.

    http://www.maxim.com/entertainment/music/article/taylor-swift-tops-2015-maxim-hot-100

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 30, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      There is a certain oddness in someone of her wealth and power saying she was held back. But, perhaps she would have even more wealth and influence if she were a man.

  9. ronster12012 said, on June 30, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    That’s worth a silver medal all on it’s own……poor me, poor me, wahhwahwah.

    At a dinner party I had with friends, 3 of whom were women and two of those were ‘feminists’, the conversation got around to how ‘oppressed’ women were. I pointed out that, opposed to their characterization of men=power, women=powerlessness, at the top of the heap were beautiful and intelligent women, then just beautiful women
    then handsome and intelligent men
    then intelligent men regardless of looks
    then average men and women
    then stupid men and women

    then ugly and stupid women, who really do it tough.

    My friends started the usual attacks, I just laughed and said that they were angry *because* what I said was true.

    Despite all that we all have been friends for 30 years.

  10. TJB said, on June 30, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    See if this works…

    http://mobile.twitter.com/moody/status/553232700086427650/photo/1


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