Why Libertarianism is Dangerous

Over the past week or so, I’ve had a running good-natured argument on facebook about drug legalization – a friend has been arguing that (among other things) marijuana use shouldn’t be restricted by the government, because it’s an individual’s right to use it if they want.  I’ve been arguing that “individual rights” isn’t the best way to frame this debate – or very many other debates, at least not if “individual rights” means what the libertarians among us often take it to mean.

On a related note, this morning, the New York Times ran a long profile about Rand Paul – its subtitle: “Senator Looks to Move Libertarianism From Fringe to Mainstream.”  It’s basically a news story, and doesn’t express any strong opinions about libertarian politics, but it shows to me that now may be a dangerous time in American politics – this stuff might have an actual chance of grabbing some power.  I have an some ideas how we can avoid this.

INTRODUCTION: That facebook debate and article have helped me clarify for myself both the temptation towards – and the danger of embracing – libertarianism.  This may sound like dry stuff, but I’ve come to believe that if we’re ever going to actual right the uneasy (some say sinking) ship that is the American welfare state – that is, if we’re ever actually going to deal with the massive inequality that pervades our society and do so without mortgaging our future in treasury bond-funded deficit spending, we will need to resolve a conflict that resides deep in the American psyche – the conflict between individual liberty and social justice.

The conflict can be seen broadly in two of the most often-repeated sentences in our founding documents.  First, the Declaration of Independence:

…all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.

And second, the preamble to the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Declaration privileges individual rights “unalienable rights.. to secure these… governments are instituted”; the Constitution focuses on justice and collective welfare – “in order to form a more perfect Union [and] establish justice… establish this Constitution.”

You can see this tension all over the place in American society – I’m obviously not the first one to say something like this.  What has been catching my eye lately is that each party has its own way of wrestling with this tension.

For Republicans – there is the wing of the party often called the “libertarian” one – that are interested in lower taxes, freedom from government, and are broadly pro-choice, anti-Department of Education, etc.  But then there is also what is sometimes called the “Christian Conservative” wing of the party, that is interested in creating a much different sort of society – one that is (first and foremost) pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, anti-evolution, etc.  In between these two are the “Establishment Republicans,” a generally pro-business set that is relatively non-ideological, but if they had to pick, probably have much more in common with the libertarians (they don’t say so that loudly, because as Paul Krugman has pointed out, that belief doesn’t garner majority support – so they need to pull the crazies along).  These are the sort of “centrist” republicans who say that they are “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.”  I’ve always thought that contrast was intellectually lazy and selfish.  What I’d like to do here is show why it’s also incoherent, and why Democrats need to change their rhetoric sometimes if they want to help diminish the number of “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” centrists.

For Democrats – there is also a wing of the party that is more interested in social causes, and one more interested in economic ones.  There are democrats who want to maintain the legality of abortion, make gay marriage legal, make drugs (or some of them anyway) legal, but then, there are democrats that want to raise the minimum wage, tax the rich, develop (or at least prevent from collapsing entirely) the union movement, etc.  Democrats’ two wings are actually a lot less in tension with one another.  But what I’d like to show here is that Democrats needs to be careful about this – there is more of a tension than we may sometimes realize, and Democrats play into Republican strategies by not reconciling these tendencies, even though it’s quite possible to do so.

THESIS STATEMENT:  Democrats often, when arguing about social issues, tend to adopt the language of libertarianism, and tend to do damage to the economic-equality aspect of their cause.  They do so largely unintentionally I think.  Sometimes it seems like saying “you have no right to say who I can and can’t get married to” is a more common-sense argument than explaining the economic impacts of marriage law; saying “who are you tell me whether or not I can smoke pot?” similarly feels like it will be an easier case to make than a more extended critique of the war on drugs on poor communities.  The problem is – libertarianism is libertarianism -regardless of who’s deploying it.  The more appeals to substantive individual liberty democrats make, the more they bolster the cause for economic libertarianism, which is the really dangerous strand of it.

All is not lost however – I’m NOT saying democrats need to stop arguing about gay marriage, drug legalization, freedom from government surveillance, etc.  What I am saying is that Democrats need to work harder to articulate this part of their agenda with reference to JUSTICE, not FREEDOM.  In this way, democrats will be able to avoid inadvertently promoting the cause that allows things like the Bush-era tax cuts to happen, and things that have largely prevented meaningful health care reform from succeeding in this country.


[I’ve tried to articulate this section without reference to philosophers’ technical terms]

The essence of the argument against libertarianism lies in its simplistic understanding of human social life.  At first, it presents itself as very common-sense, something along the lines of “I go to work and earn money; I should have the right to do whatever I want with that money.  If I want to give you some of it, I will, but you have no right to take it from me.”  Libertarianism’s most basic commitment is to the primacy of property rights.

The problem with this view, however, is just as obvious as its appeal.  When you go to work and earn money, you do so not simply as a result of your individual labors, but as a result of a collective social effort.  When Barack Obama said “you didn’t build this,” he was explaining the fundamental problem with libertarianism.

[Side comment – of course Obama was treated like a crazy person for having said this, and then he distanced himself from the comment.  But he was right.  You didn’t build this.  Or at least, not alone.  I really wish Obama and other Democrats would do more to actually defend this very commonsense truth (remember when Hillary was ridiculed for saying “it takes a village”?  Same thing…) but they don’t.]

The simplest way to illustrate this is by pointing out that property rights require some system of security.  Having a police force, for example, is probably pretty important for the meaningful exercise of property rights.  For this reason, most libertarians are willing to make arguments allowing them to exist (and armies, and even fire departments).  They function as – to use a Kantian phrase – necessary conditions for the possibility of property rights.  So far so good.

The problem is, “you built it” and succeeded for reasons that are a lot more extensive than the existence of a police department, fire department and armed forces defending the country.  “You built it” because you received an education, had access to an economy that allowed you to hire qualified workers, and, perhaps most significantly, you “built it” because you were BORN and RAISED by other human beings, not least of whom your mother, who engaged in a whole bunch labor for which she was never paid [feminists who think about this should have a huge problem with libertarianism].

Your labor does not exist in a vacuum, it exists as a socially mediated product.  Sure, you were in charge of the building project, owned the company, hired the workers and raised the capital needed, but all of that happening depended on social processes as much as on your own initiative.  We probably can’t tell which was “more” important, and even “your own initiative” – your sense of entrepreneurial spirit – arose for socially mediated reasons.

The view of the human being espoused by libertarianism ignores all of that, or draws arbitrary boundaries around it.  Once we recognize that the decision to privilege private property rights is just ONE SOCIAL OPTION AMONG MANY, we get naturally to the question of which social option is the best one – that’s what lead one philosopher to use the thought experiment from which this blog draws its name.  Property rights aren’t self-evident, they’re an arrangement that we’ve collectively settled upon.  But we can reflect on the nature of that collective settlement, and when we do so, we come to see that social welfare provisions are at least as important as private property protections.

How do we decide which are more important and why?  We need to consider what is the most fair and just way to distribute the collective social product that our life together produces.  Since “you built it” was only possible because of a social process, we need to ask what that social process morally requires so as it be fair to all its participants.  Again, it MAY be the case that some limited scheme of property rights is important for that purpose, but property rights have no presumptive position within the debate.  People possessing their own stuff is doubtlessly important, but our respect for it arises out of an understanding of the social situation of production, not in spite of that social situation.


The foregoing is obviously relatively abstract.  The upshot, though, isn’t.  The more people start to see things in the individual-rights way of thinking, the more they ignore the social aspects of their surroundings.  This is a recipe for selfishness, and that selfishness manifests itself in the neglect of public institutions and arrangements.  Every person who says “hands off my pot!” is another person who begins to say “hands off my taxes!”  And “hands off my taxes!” has been the most damaging intuition to arise in American politics in the last thirty years.  Because taxes are ultimately what prevent inequality.  Redistribution (or, to use a better word DISTRIBUTION – since the “re-” tends to presuppose the legitimacy of the tax-free distribution, which begs the question) is necessary in a just and democratic society, a truth most Europeans seem much, MUCH more willing to grasp than most Americans.  In order for that distributive justice to keep happening, we need a citizenry who thinks first “how will this law affect the social order as a whole” and not just “how will this affect me?”

BUT DRUGS SHOULD BE LEGAL (and abortion, and privacy, etc. etc.)

I don’t doubt it.  My point is that we as liberals need to cast our defenses of these causes in justice language, not individual-freedom language.  Most of the time, a justice-based argument is available.  Sometimes it may not be.  Sometimes the justice-based argument may, in fact, prescribe changes that are somewhat different from the libertarian-intuition-based changes we had envisioned.  I say that’s a good thing.  To give a brief example, it means that when we talk about drug legalization, we need to look MORE at the disastrous effects the “war on drugs” has had on the poor, and think about how to fix that, and focus LESS on the sort of libertarian justifications that led to the success of recent ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington, initiatives that aren’t all that different from the ones that try to repeal things like State income tax provisions.  We need to direct our energy towards justice for the poor, not the right to smoke pot in our own living rooms.  If the end result is one that allows pot-smoking in our living rooms (and it very well may) that’s fine, but that shouldn’t be our primary motivation.

In short, most of the Democrats’ social causes can be explained as justice issues.  Doing so may alter the outcome of those social causes, but if they do, that’s a good thing, because justice is better than libertarianism.  Promoting them in this fashion also has the added pragmatic benefit of drawing the Democratic party together, rather than apart, and also has the chance of showing moderates that justice can lead to transformations that are good for individual liberty, which might make those moderates, in turn, less skeptical about justice.  The opposite effort – using libertarian language an attempt to placate centrists in the short-term, has the long-term effect of tipping the scales towards economic libertarianism, a dangerous and destructive force in American life.

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16 Responses to Why Libertarianism is Dangerous

  1. Sam Brown says:

    Nowhere is this tension more on display when people advocate the “legalize it” and “heavily tax” it argument.

  2. Nates says:

    Very interesting, Josh. For a long time, I’ve felt quite ambivalent about Libertarianism. On the one hand, it strikes me as being the only intellectually-interesting conservative position. (I’ve learned a lot from reading the posts by Orin Kerr over at Volokh Conspiracy, for example.) And there’s something about the position that speaks to me on a personal level. I do think it’s outrageous that the government won’t let me spoke pot, if that’s what I want to do.

    On the other hand, the idea that we have these inviolable property rights strikes me as absurd, for precisely the reasons mentioned above. Hillary was right: it just does take a village. So the myth of the sovereign individual makes for a lousy foundation for Libertarian theories.

    Nonetheless, there’s another, more interesting way of getting to a similar position. (I don’t have this fully worked this out, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.) Let’s assume that Aristotle’s right that the goal of politics is human flourishing. Of course, what counts as flourishing will vary from one person to another–what makes me happy might not make you happy at all. (Here’s where we part company with Aristotle.) So, all things being equal and whenever possible, it’s best to let people freely pursue the lives they wish to live. Well-educated individuals with reasonable access to society’s institutions are in the best position to select and pursue their life goals. And they’ll be happier if these goals are achieved in significant part through their own efforts (or through the collective efforts of a group they freely identify with). This connects up with the Kantian idea that freedom captures something essential and profound about our human nature.

    Now, the state is clearly an enormous threat to free human flourishing. Governments accumulate dangerous amounts of power, and they have a terrible history of abusing this power. For example, given what I knew about Obama in 2008, I never would have imagined that he could support unprecedented mass spying on American citizens, but here we are. (Obviously, a quick glance through the history of the past century will reveal even worse examples.)

    So, here’s a version of a libertarian principle: we should limit government as much as possible to encourage free human flourishing.

    I think that’s an attractive, reasonable principle. It might even be the truth in Libertarianism. But notice, there are significant implications to defending the view in this way. Freedom is no longer some magical birthright, but instead appears as a capacity for making good life-choices and acting effectively on them. And this opens up the possibility of recognizing another important truth: that we’re not born free, that freedom is an ongoing political accomplishment. In other words, to the extent that I’ve been able to freely choose a flourishing life, it’s only because my family, my community, my nation made this possible: by not leaving me impoverished, by providing me with a good education, by protecting me from those out to harm me, and so on. Laws that encourage the development of people capable of choosing good lives and flourishing in them are justified. Laws that do not support this capacity are problematic.

    To put all of this in slogan form: a proper Libertarianism would recognize that freedom is not the foundation of politics, but its capstone.

    I think this has become my unofficial position in political theory. (Call it Libero-Eudaimonism.) So far, however, I haven’t managed to find any defenders of the view.

    Now, how does all of this relate back to the original post? Well, most obviously, I think it cuts the connection Josh is making between defending social rights and undermining economic equality. Properly understood, Libertarianism is actually consistent with robust equality of opportunity–indeed, requires it! Where Josh sees a conflict in the statements of the Founding Fathers, I see an important insight into their underlying unity. What we should be seeking is not to get rid of Libertarianism, but to put it back on its proper foundation.

  3. John says:

    Well-argued. Although I was admittedly your argumentative foil on fb, I have to heartily agree with a vast majority of your thinking here. As a terminal middle-grounder I find myself often playing Devil’s Advocate to those with particularly strong positions, even if I generally agree with them and, in that spirit, I present a few questions about your thesis:

    1. How does your philosophy account for the inevitably different public perceptions of the “good” that occur in a democracy? We’ve seen a lot of conservatives start arguing FOR income inequality on the basis that it’s rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. Now there are obviously incredible arguments against such things but let’s assume that there will always be a large group of the population that will always disagree with us, in such case, might not a liberty-based argument be necessary?

    For example, the 1st Amendment is the firewall of democracy and, indeed, political discussion. Let’s say you’ve convinced people that we should defer to a justice-based framework but failed to convince them of your conception of justice. Would they not, in their own minds at least, then be justified in silencing your speech on the grounds that you’re promoting ideas that work against social justice?

    It seems to me that, in a pluaralistic society, there will always need to be a healthy combination of both liberty AND justice-based thinking.

    2. How do you weigh political practicalities in such a system? Ie. let’s say we can can convince a sliver of GOP Congresspeople to vote for a bill that advances justice but only if we allow it to be couched in terms of individual liberty? How does one balance the goals of advancing liberal thinking versus passing liberal legislation?

    3. I guess this is the least high-minded question but I feel it’s necessary, at some level – is there not some point at which common-sense type justice arguments have a high place? I recently finished reading Slavenka Drakulić’s account of women under Communism and in it she argues that what ultimately doomed the Communist system was basic, on-the-ground failures that would probably fall more under the category of justice-based complaints rather than justice ones. If people see something that seems intrinsically stupid or unfair to them, even if it promotes social equality, they’re are going to fundamentally reject not just that policy but also the political structure that endorses it.

    This was perhaps at the root of a lot of my contentions of fb – philosophical imperatives are always nice and the more absolute a position the neater defense of it can often be but it seems to me as someone closer to historian than philosopher that, inevitably, the best practical solutions to real-world problems contain more than a little philosophical compromise.

  4. David says:

    Great post, Josh (along with very interesting commentary from Nates and John)! I’d like to nitpick my way into the conversation.

    I agree with your general points about rhetorical strategy, Josh–viz., that Democrats would be better off framing their arguments in terms of ‘justice/equality’ than ‘liberty.’ I also agree that this would more often than not make the arguments stronger: claims about ‘individual rights’ function poorly as premises in a moral-political arguments. Finally, I think you’re right that a kind of intellectual laziness is probably to blame: it’s generally going to take a lot of effort to make empirically-driven arguments about the relative social costs/benefits of law/policy alternatives.

    Oh, and I agree with you about one more Big Point–viz., that there is a kind of ‘myth of the individual’ that pervades and vitiates certain *naive forms* of libertarian thought. I would add, though, that this is not unique to libertarians–most people (whatever their political affiliation) have only a very inchoate sense of the extent to which we as individuals are created, developed, and sustained in and through complex social institutions/processes. I mean, it’s not like ‘Libertarians’ are the only ones among us not bothering to learn their Hegel. They just exploit in a more direct way than others our social-cultural tendency to discount the influence of the social-cultural.

    Ok, so if I agree with all that, why do I still feel like I want to disagree with you? It could be our personal history, I don’t know. 🙂 I’m hoping, though, the source of my misgivings has more to do with the fact that I seem less willing than you (and Nates, who I’ll come to in a bit) to give up on this old-fashioned idea of ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ as a moral-political value of paramount importance.

    For starters, I don’t think it’s right to say that “Libertarianism’s most basic commitment is to the primacy of property rights.” I think a better candidate for Libertarianism’s ‘most basic commitment’ is the primacy of, well, liberty, or the idea–which the Libertarian Michael Huemer calls the Presumption of Liberty Principle–that

    we normally have a right to do as we wish unless there is a reason why we should not be allowed to do so—and hence that one who denies our right to act in a particular way has the dialectical burden to provide reasons against the existence of the right in question. In contrast, one who asserts a right need only respond to these alleged reasons.

    I don’t need to unpack this for readers of the blog–we know roughly that it amounts to an affirmation of the presumptive and equal claim of moral agents (persons) to direct the course of their own lives as they see fit, without interference from others. Now in saying that this is the basic commitment of Libertarianism, I don’t mean to say that anyone who agrees with Huemer’s principle is thereby a Libertarian. Not at all. Whether one is a Libertarian will have much more to do with how socially costly they think the exercise of personal liberty has to be before interference is justified. But that tells us a lot, I think. It’s wrong to suggest, as I think you do, at certain points in your post, Josh, that Libertarians are the guardians of liberty whereas the rest of us are better off jettisoning that confused, old-fashioned notion. I, for one, agree wholeheartedly with Huemer’s principle, despite disagreeing with Huemer about a lot of other things. The disagreements between Huemer and myself have a lot to do with the fact that he’s a Libertarian and I am not–but–and this is my point–he’s not the only one who gets to say that he values and cares about the protection of individual liberty. I do, too. Indeed, with respect to the marijuana argument, Huemer and I probably agree: the laws are stupid, and if we held government accountable to the Presumption of Liberty Principle then these laws could not be sustained. At the very least, the LAWMAKERS would have to be the ones explaining to us how vitally important marijuana prohibition is to the interests of our society, rather than a bunch of citizens having to waste their valuable time speaking to power about the baselessness of these laws.

    To sum up: I sense a kind of dismissiveness towards the value of individual liberty/freedom in your post, Josh, which makes me balk. –As if ‘liberty/freedom’ is a concept from moral adolescence, while ‘equality/justice’ is the conceptual mark of moral maturity. I don’t buy that–whether or not it’s what you meant to imply. I see some of this in Nates’ response, too, which is particularly surprising given his alleged Kantianism. (I have my doubts.) 🙂 More on that after dinner.

    Anyway–great post!

  5. Nates says:

    David, I’m quite surprised to hear that you think I’m giving up on freedom (or Kant)–I thought I was defending it (them). So hurry up and eat!

  6. David says:

    Hi Nates,

    I really liked your response to Josh’s post. Initially, I was ambivalent about this passage (below), but now I think I was just misunderstanding your point:

    Freedom is no longer some magical birthright, but instead appears as a capacity for making good life-choices and acting effectively on them. And this opens up the possibility of recognizing another important truth: that we’re not born free, that freedom is an ongoing political accomplishment. In other words, to the extent that I’ve been able to freely choose a flourishing life, it’s only because my family, my community, my nation made this possible: by not leaving me impoverished, by providing me with a good education, by protecting me from those out to harm me, and so on. Laws that encourage the development of people capable of choosing good lives and flourishing in them are justified. Laws that do not support this capacity are problematic.

    One thing I think you’re saying here is that ‘freedom’ is not merely a ‘side-constraint’ on the formation of political society–it’s not as if we’re creating political societies for some reason having nothing to do with the promotion of freedom/liberty, and in that formation we’re constrained by certain ‘natural liberty rights’ that we can’t encroach upon. Rather, you’re suggesting, I think, that one of the main justifications for the formation of political society is to promote/protect freedom/liberty. If our political society is justified, then it makes possible for us a kind of meaningful/effective expression of our liberty/freedom that would not be possible for us outside of political society. That is of course a very Kantian (but also just very Modern) idea, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. Note, too, that it might be a reason to resist Josh’s proposal that welfare-liberals jettison the rhetoric of freedom/liberty from public political debate. What they might want to do instead, on the line I interpret you to be pressing, is argue on behalf of the connections between policies of welfare-liberalism and the meaningful/effective realization of individual freedom. Anyway, all of that I agree with.

  7. Josh says:

    Well, thanks everyone for their comments. I’ve got some things to say as you might imagine.

    One big overall point – I was mostly trying to suggest a good criterion that liberals who mostly agree with one another should use to prioritize their decisions about what to fight for and how to fight for that. I don’t think liberty is unimportant or “nonsense upon stilts” or anything like that. I just think it’s less important than equality, and think equality-based concerns are therefore the ones we should be training our attention on. To the extent that we pay attention to libertarian concerns and framing them in libertarian terms, we end up feeding the conservative anti-government machine, and so destroying things like our educational system and health care system (that destruction is very real, so far as I can tell, and much more important than things like whether white kids in college can smoke pot). I’m arguing that the latter trades off with the former, and that’s dangerous. I’m also arguing that from the standpoint of justice, most of the things that liberals sometimes turn to libertarian language to support could still be supported without that language. Those things that could not are perhaps not worth fighting for, at least not as much as the things that are.

    Re: Nates – I think we may be saying similar things in different languages. When you say that defending libertarianism your way severs the necessary connection between social injustice and basic liberties, that’s what I was trying to say. Whether we get there by “human flourishing” or via “primary social goods” and the rest of the justice-as-fairness apparatus, the point is, liberty is a derived, not a primary entity, which means it’s going to end up being something derived from the same place as the pursuit of economic equality. Certain kinds of liberty (civil, religious, and yet, also property-based) may turn out to be important from the perspective of justice. But they might not. The same might be true about human flourishing. What constitutions human flourishing, and what constitutes a primary social good are not hugely different questions. I know they are for technically adept moral/political philosophers, but at the level of ideology and politics, they function similarly. Of course, this doesn’t resolve which of liberty and equality are more important, but it does show libertarians that they need to engage in the human flourishing/primary social goods debate, something they’re often in denial about. I’ve never read very much of it, but I always thought Joseph Raz’s The Morality of Freedom pursued the argument you’re making.

    David – It’s been so long I’d almost forgot about the soft spot in your heart for that older guy in your philosophy class that read Ayn Rand novels…. 🙂

    You’re right about the dismissiveness – and the immaturity/maturity distinction you make is probably what’s animating my argument at an emotional level. I know that’s not an argument, but it is where some of the motivation is coming from. I think the libertarian concept of authority is very much apiece with the sort of anti-authoritarian suspicion I associate with my teenage years. I do think at some deeper level that the Hegelian-type account of the embeddedness of human experience tells against liberty as an abstract principle. Again, not an argument, just me stating a prejudice (well, I think there’s an argument there too but I’m not making it right now).

    Also, the primary intent of my post was to make a point about the strategy people who agree with me about the relationship of liberty to equality in the context of economic issues should be pursuing in the context of social ones. In other words – a libertarian wasn’t going to agree with me in the first place. I considered not even defending equality in my original post, because I wasn’t looking to have a huge libertarianism vs. justice argument. All I really wanted to do was show economic liberals a rhetorical trap they may place themselves in unnecessarily.

    Okay – that said is there an argument against what you have to say? To me the preference for liberty needs to be rooted in an account of human nature at some level, and an account of how humans relate to one another in society. You’re right that libertarianism isn’t the only political theory that is naive about its thoughts about human nature and development. But I think once we become reflective about “reading our Hegel”, as you say, things get trickier for the libertarian. The commitment to liberty you articulate as primary is a commitment that generally arises within the context of existing social structures. As I said in my post, it tends to take for granted a whole scheme of social-welfare-type institutions, and THEN goes on to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable coercion. Of course, a libertarian-anarchist position doesn’t have this problem. It can just say “yeah there shouldn’t be post offices, fire departments, police departments, armies, etc. either.” But the middle-of-the-road defense of liberty amounts to saying that some institutions unreasonably impede on our liberty and others do not. What criterion can it cite to distinguish between those reasonable and unreasonable ones? It can’t be “if it violates liberty.” It can’t also be as simple as the burden-of-proof-type argument you offer. There is no reason liberty has that presumption, unless you can root it in some broader understanding of human nature and human social life. If there is going to be any account of authority, it will have to discern between reasonable and unreasonable restrictions on liberty. And then we will have to ask why liberty is so important? If it’s for a human-flourishing-type reason like Nates offers, then there will be other things that function at the same level – like equality of opportunity. Liberty will again lose its presumptive status.

    It’s easy to apply the liberty principle you cite in the context of individual laws, but it’s tougher to understand why government would ever exist in the first place according to it. Liberty takes for granted social structures that it cannot itself justify without having to justify others too, and entering into the debate about primary social goods, etc., that it was working so hard to sidestep. Again, I don’t think there will be no place for liberty once we start having that discussion, there just won’t be a presumptive place for it.

    To John – how to account for differing conceptions of the good within a pluralistic society is justice-based liberalism’s bread and butter. We establish shared understandings about the nature of human existence and acknowledge reasonable and unreasonable constraints on arguments that can be offered in the public sphere. Two people might disagree about the specific issue of pot-legalization (or even about the existence of God), but their commitment to democratic government and equality of opportunity can lead them to a resolution on the more specific issues they disagree about. That’s the theory anyhow. There’s nothing you can say to the resolutely illiberal fundamentalist who does not recognize that things like fairness and equality of opportunity are important, but no theory can really reason with deliberately unreasonable people. Most people arguing about drug legalization, for example, actually share a lot when it comes to moral and ethical commitments. I’m not doing an awesome job of explaining this, but that was, more or less, the whole point of Rawls’s second big book, Political Liberalism.

    Re your second argument: I’m more making a rhetorical recommendation on the part of Democrats in selling their policies amongst themselves. Of course sometimes casting things in individual-liberties terms will be necessary to get that proverbial moderate democrat from Louisiana to vote for health care reform. But overall, when liberals construct the policies they are looking to advocate, they should FIRST ask themselves what justice requires, and sculpt the policy around that. If it so happens that libertarians agree with that policy, there’s no reason to refuse that support. But we should begin in figuring out what justice requires, and nibble at the edges from there, not adopt libertarian justifications for laws that, from the standpoint of justice, may in fact be bad ideas.

    Re your 3rd argument – I’ll just reiterate that I wasn’t saying “no drug law changes.” I was saying that we should figure out if change is necessary based on justice-based considerations. It turns out, as you pointed out, that in this case, there are overwhelming justice-based considerations, mostly having to do with the war on drugs and how it affects poor people and minorities. All I’m saying is, THAT should be more important than middle-class people being allowed to smoke pot (something they can for the most part already do with relative impunity). Our priorities should incline towards anti-poverty issues first, and the other things later. They’ll still be consistent, but we only have so much political capital, and so much time. We need to focus our attentions on what matters more.

  8. Josh says:

    David writes –

    “What they might want to do instead, on the line I interpret you to be pressing, is argue on behalf of the connections between policies of welfare-liberalism and the meaningful/effective realization of individual freedom. Anyway, all of that I agree with.”

    I thought that’s what I was saying too… if you like liberty, in order for it to be meaningfully exercised, you need justice. But if the two are in conflict, justice prevails. And if you’re choosing what the fight about in the first place, justice is more important.

  9. Josh says:

    The important part, to me anyway, is to get rid of the “side-constraints” type talk.

  10. David says:

    I find it very interesting that your central thesis is one that suggests how the Democratic Party (DP) can be more effective at promoting the idea of social justice through a collectivist framing of hot-button political issues rather than an individual-liberty framing. I absolutely agree 100% with your points on how the individual interacts in a social context, and how every individual’s well being is intimately tied to the health of the society and the availability of collective resources.

    What I find odd is that you would even suggest that the DP has an interest in social justice. The DP and the RP have always had a core set of common libertarian values. The neoconservative consensus is pro-corporate, interventionist, authoritarian, and nowhere interested in social justice. The two major U.S. parties present voters with a completely false choice when it comes to the most important social issues like property rights, foreign interventionism, corporate privileges, taxes, etc.

    I have personally given up hope that the DP will ever be a vehicle for promoting social justice. I’m sure the minute the political winds shift so that the propaganda of ‘social justice’ buys more votes than the propaganda of ‘individual liberty’, the DP will be all over it. But don’t hold your breath waiting for any actual pro-social policy to back up the hot air.

  11. David says:

    Hey ‘David’–get a new handle. I’d hate for someone to think that I’m responsible for your articulate, cogent posts. 🙂

  12. Josh says:


    You’re probably not wrong about the DP (or a lot of it anyway). That may be one reason why they’re not so good at making social-justice-based arguments – a lot of them don’t believe in it. I guess I can’t go all the way to believe that there are leaders who aren’t just conservative corporate pawns. Your stance and mine are probably just a difference in degree, sadly.

  13. David #2 says:

    David #2 suits me fine, I’ve been David #2 before. It’s a popular name.

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