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.
BUT WHAT IS THE DANGER OF LIBERTARIANISM?
[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.
BUT WHY IS THAT DANGEROUS?
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.