Liberalism and Libertarianism – Some Contrasts and Why They Matter

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I’ve recently written a few posts (about the dangers libertarianism poses for social justice, how those dangers might make us re-imagine our opposition to the war on drugs, and lastly how the recent Arizona conscience-clause-ish debate about serving gay patrons might show us those those dangers as well).  I’ve met with a running string of well-meant objections from David and Nates, so in this post I’d like to take a stab at making a broader theoretical argument, one that might rectify their objections.  

The Frustrating Role of the “Straw-Person” Objection in Arguments about Libertarianism

I’m going to try to avoid direct quotation or paraphrase of any particular thinker’s ideas (pro- or anti-libertarian) since one of the sticking points has been the allegation that I’ve targeted false exemplars of libertarianism and not responded to its true essence, and so my arguments have been straw-person arguments.  Before I begin, I want to make one reply to that: one of my biggest problems with libertarianism is that it generally makes the straw-person allegation too much.  It is a slippery, Protean beast that is very fond of saying “that’s not what I’m committed to.”  One of my problems with this is that it is therefore very well-served to do yeoman service as a certain sort of ideological tool: one that is used to provide intellectual cover for less intellectually rigorous conservative politics, and one that, when pursued, ends up not being able to provide the cover the conservative politician wanted it to provide.  But in this slipperiness also resides its popularity – it becomes a chimera, an alleged solution that never gets fully explained, existing as an “ideal” that allegedly can explain many things, but when pinned down on particular explanations, is found lacking.

So What is Libertarianism then?  And Liberalism, and what is the difference?

In what follows, I will try to distill what I see as the essence of two families of political theories.  Of course, insofar as I mischaracterize this essence, my argument won’t be valid.

Before I can demonstrate my broader conclusions, I need to propose an overall schema to navigate these waters.  I will do this by laying out first, what a theory of government and its proper role, more or less, needs to do.  Next, I will explain how liberalism-type theories generally fill this role.  After that, I will explain how libertarian-type theories provide an alternative to fill this role.  Last, I will explain why the liberal theory is better suited than the libertarian one.

Three Questions a Theory of the Proper Role of Government Must Answer

For a theory of government to count as an adequate one, I propose that it must answer three important questions.

1.  What is the proper way to argue about what the government should or should not do? What I’ll call the procedural question.

2.  Given the answer to (1), what substantive forms should the government take?  What I’ll call the institutional structures question.

3.  What reason do we have to believe that given our answers to (1) and (2), that this government structure will be enduring and stable?  What I’ll call the stability question.

My overall argument is that liberalism provides better answers to the questions than libertarianism, because  libertarianism is actually UNABLE to provide coherent answers to the procedural question (though and liberalism is), and this is a reason why libertarianism needs to rest so strongly its answer to the stability-question, and therefore, though libertarian can answer the institutional question, its answer is worse than liberalism’s.

How Liberal Theories Answer These Questions

The overall liberal answers to (1)-(3) runs as follows:  (1) In order to decide what sort of a government we should have, we must begin by deciding upon a fair, equitable procedure for determining the terms of social life, a procedure that models the constraints on arguments we think are most reasonable in discussions of this sort.  Once we have established such a procedure, we will see that (2) a set of institutional arrangements emerges that privileges fair equality of opportunity, and to some extent, personal liberty, and (3) such a set of institutions is likely to endure and form the basis of a stable democratic, egalitarian order.  I’ll describe these in some more detail.

(1) Suppose a group of people are deciding upon rules for interacting with one another.  Some rules already exist, some have yet to be formed.  We find ourselves in this situation all the time.  Perhaps a group of co-workers need to solve a new problem that hasn’t arisen before.  They have solved other problems with some similarities to this one, but there are also some differences that mean we need some new rules.  How would we pick the new rules?  We’d reflect on the old rules, but then also need to talk about how and to what extend new rules should be picked.  We’d agree that insofar as everyone worked at this company, everyone deserved some say in them.  Maybe more veteran employees would deserve more say than newcomers, or people with certain kinds of knowledge would have more say than others.

The idea here, of course, is that when we argue about government and its role, this is exactly the game we’re playing.  It’s different though, in that we’re all equally eligible to participate in the conversation by virtue of being citizens.  Perhaps some people are older, or some have more knowledge, but none of that seems relevant to how much say we each get.  There is something like an aristocratic/anti-democratic objection that could be made here: but shouldn’t we listen to those we know more?  I’ll set that aside because so far as I can tell, that’s something liberals and libertarians both think is irrelevant.

So if we’re trying to form rules for social cooperation, and we all have an equal say in the rules, what’s fair to invoke as an argument, and what isn’t?  I can’t say “My skin is fairer than yours, so I deserve more of a say than you.”  And so on for issues of gender, sexual preference, etc.  If we take all the things that aren’t fair to use as reasons, and combine them, we discover that very few things can be used as reasons in this discussion.  We discover that it’s only what we all have in common that can be invoked.  But that’s okay, because what we all have in common is enough to derive a set of institutions.

(2) So which institutions should we have?  Ones that protect that common set of interests.  We find that our all existing together produces more than we could produce separately, and so we recognize that we need to fairly divide that product, as our collective existence is, to some extent, responsible for its existence.  But we also recognize that we’re not ONLY a collectivity, we are also individuals.  Since we’re also individuals, we see we have interests in working together AND in being apart.  Hence we create a set of institutions that (a) maximize our collective product, (b) fairly share it, and then also (c) carve out a space for each of us to exist apart from one another.

How we balance (a) maximization, (b) fair distribution, and (c) individual liberty is an immensely complicated question.  For my purposes here, I will not answer it.  I will just suggest that, starting from a reasonable position, we can see that all three of them are important to some extent.  Again to emphasize, I am not saying that any one of them has been shown to be more important, OR that they are equally important.  The point is only that they are all important to some undetermined extent.

(3)  The institutions we create, insofar as they recognize some relevant social-scientific realities about ourselves, will likely be stable.  We have honored our capacity to work together, or need to share with one another, but also our desire for independence.

Again, this is very schematic.  But it’s the schema that’s important, because it’s at the schematic level that libertarianism differs from liberalism.

How Libertarian Theories Answer These Questions

Libertarian theories offer far different answers to the procedural, institutional and stability questions.  I’ll step through their answers now.

(1) Libertarian theories also begin in medias res.  Again imagine our office, confronted with the need to create a new set of rules for a new situation.  For the libertarian, the question will begin very differently.  The question, instead of being “what would be a fair way to determine what rules we will use to confront this new situation?” will instead focus on something more like “what have we previously agreed to?”  Upon closer consideration, it is discovered, that employee A has historically handled the finances, B the sales, C the public-relations, and so on.  And when it is asked why A, B and C got these roles, it is found that it’s because A, B and C agreed to take them on.  So how should the office confront the new situation?  Through a system of mutual agreements.  If A is willing to do x new aspect of the job, and B y aspect, and C z aspect, then that’s how it will go.

So, now we shift to government.  A government, on the libertarian view, is an institution formed at an historical point in time.  Everyone forming that government brings certain things to the table as a result of their existence in pre-governmental society.  In fact, the main reason people come together, on the libertarian view, is to protect what the lives they have carved out for themselves in the absence of government.

(2) Which brings us along to the institutional question.  For the libertarian, institutions are needed to remedy the shortcomings of pre-governmental society.  A big problem has been the relative insecurity of life absent government.  So everyone agrees to contribute some of their accumulated time/effort/labor/wealth/whatever to remedy these insecurities.  How or why this collective property is contributed largely rests on a determination of what will best protect everyone’s pre-governmental interests.

(3)  Will this be stable in the long term?  This depends on everyone making adequate contributions to the government.  IF everyone does their agreed-upon part to maintain the institutions which have been created.

Some Salient Differences Between These Two Accounts

(1) Regarding the procedural question – The liberal account seeks to discover fair terms of social cooperation.  It sees that our life together produces a collective social product that much be distributed.  The libertarian account does not see this collective social product, but instead focuses on what everyone has antecedently to government, and asks what the best way to protect that would be, that everyone can agree upon.

(2) Regarding the institutional question – The liberal account seeks to maximize the social product, distribute it fairly, and also discover a space for individual liberty.  The libertarian account seeks to protect everyone’s individual product from insecurity.

(3) Regarding the stability question – the liberal account makes a social-scientific judgment about the relative merits of collective life; the libertarian account sees a different vision, not of collective life, but of individuals protecting their interests and honoring agreements made with one another.

Liberalism’s Objection to the Libertarian Procedural Answer

We may ask – which procedural answer is more relevant to the task of government?  It is here more than in any other question, that liberalism carries the day.  The liberal position can ask of the libertarian position – when was it that we stopped being individuals and came together as a society?  The libertarian of course cannot answer this question.  There was no definite moment where people stopped living on their own and formed a government.  Everything was always already social.  People had what they had, not only through their own work, but through cooperation with others.  People were not born apart from one another, they were born TO one another.  So to ask “what did I have in the absence of government, and how can government protect that?” is to ask an incoherent question.

The liberal account does not ask the quasi-historical “What did I have before government” or “what would I have had before government”, but instead, “how do we ALREADY work together?  Is it fair?”  The conversation begins by recognizing that our work together has made us all richer, through things like division of labor, collective safety, etc.  Sure, we are at time in tension with one another, and so we need to honor that too, but the liberal account gives the lie to the libertarian “what would I have without society?”-type question.  It feels relevant only because we take the social structure in which we exist for granted.  When I “pay my taxes,” it feels like I would have had $6000/month but then I “give up” $2000.  On the liberal view, this is not what happens at all.  You would never have had $6000, because without giving up that $2000, there would have been no society to help produce the $6000 in the first place.  So all you ever really could have “had” was the post-taxes $4000.  So the libertarian way of seeing the question: “I would have had x amount before we formed a government; how much should I give up to secure it?” presupposes a social product that it ignores the presence of.

A simple way to put the liberal critique of the libertarian answer to the procedural question: the historical situation you have described (a) never happened, and more importantly (b) never could have happened.  Instead of asking what we should give up to preserve what we already have, the liberal asks “given that our existence together is at least partially responsible for what we all have in the first place, what is the best way for us to distribute it?”

Once you are asking the question in this way, it’s still very complicated.  But the point is that there is no presumption that anyone already deserves any particular property.  We deserve what, as a result of argument, it turns out allows us to (a) maximize what we have, (b) honor what we owe each other, and (c) gives us something for ourselves.  There is no coherent pre-social notion of desert, in other words.  Sure, you do some individual work to acquire things, and the group does some, but there is no way to draw that line prior to deciding what is fair.  There is no presumptive starting point.

Liberalism’s Objection to Libertarianism Institutional Structure

Libertarian institutions generally protect property rights – things individuals produced on their own or through mutual agreements with others.  So there need to be things like police, fire, army, but not much else.  The liberal institutions have a broader mandate – that maximize the social product, monitor its distribution, and maintain a space for individual liberty.  Given what we’ve already argued about procedure, liberalism’s reply to libertarian institutional arrangements is simple: yes, that stuff (police, fire, the army) needs to exist, but so also do institutions which monitor the distribution of the stuff we would not have were it not for society.  Where exactly to “draw the line” between private property and group property, of course, will be tricky, but the point is, we’re drawing a line, not “surrendering” some of “our” property to the collective.  We reflect on what’s the best way to get the most stuff and share it in the fairest way.

A Common Libertarian Rejoinder

A libertarian here generally objects that the set of institutions the liberal imagines is actually ridiculously inefficient and bureaucracy-ridden, picks winners, stifles innovation, etc.  So, the libertarian replies – perhaps our answer to the procedural question was lacking, but your institutions never work the way you say they will.  If we create institutions that just focus on the stuff we think is important, things will work far better.  Perhaps there will be inequalities, but in the long term, that stuff won’t be as bad as you think it is.  Free interactions between individuals will create a fair and just society, at least on our vision of justice.    So in a way, the libertarian account actually comes to rest far MORE on the answer to the stability question than it may have seemed at the outset.

A Liberal Reply

But before we move on to discuss that part of things, note that the libertarian, if he/she cannot answer the procedural question, is actually just advocating an arbitrary distribution which happens to exist at any given time.  Since the libertarian started with “what stuff would I have had prior to government” and since that notion is incoherent, all the libertarian position generally amounts to at any given ACTUAL (as opposed to hypothetical historical) time is something like “I have x-amount of money.  How much am I willing to surrender of that?” without accounting for whether x-amount was deserved in the first place.  The libertarian is asserting a right over something he/she happens to hold in the status quo, and presuming desert of it.  The liberal can explain what one does and does not deserve (even if such discussions are complicated).  The libertarian simply takes status-quo social arrangements and the inequalities they produce for granted.

Another Libertarian Rejoinder

But, the libertarian continues – perhaps the initial distribution doesn’t matter.  Your conversation about how things should be distributed, and the institutions you’d have us create, actually turn out to be unrealistically complicated.  Sure, we can’t separate what’s socially possessed form what’s individually possessed, but at least our starting point, however arbitrary, is right before our eyes.  We already have x-amount of property, and if we all throw something in the hat to protect it, things will be a heck of a lot simpler, less prone to corruption and so on.  In the long term, sure, we’ll not have institutions you’ve come to cherish (all the distributive institutions that go beyond police, fire and the army), but things will turn out okay, because these institutions will be much simpler and easier to maintain.  Besides, privatization can fix a lot of what you say only the government can do.  Private schools, for example, can exist, and those schools will compete with one another to enroll students.  If one school is too expensive for a poor family, another will exist to help them at a lower tuition, and insofar as a market exists, it will be filled.  If that all comes out unequally, that’s okay, because it’s the best we can do.  Your institutions weren’t working so well anyway.

Liberalism’s Concluding Reply

But it matters that libertarians privilege status-quo distributions rather than taking about what’s fair to have in the first place.  A radically unequal society might be stable in the long run, but not for the right reasons.  Or, it might be “stable” from the perspective of the have’s, but not the have-not’s.  In our world now, there are many people who have very little.  Gutting the institutions which they depend on MIGHT in the long-run lead them somewhere better, but those people DESERVE a part of the social product you’re keeping for yourselves.  Perhaps you can argue that had libertarianism been in charge the whole time, there wouldn’t be these inequalities, but if we’re starting NOW, they DO exist, and for no good reason.  Even if your long-term solution will somehow remedy this problem, it ignores that people now deserve more.

Second – talk of long-term solutions of this nature is dangerous.  The status quo has radical forms of inequality – we have no good empirical proof that moving towards the elimination of the social safety net would actually do what you say it would do.  Just saying it never would have existed in the first place if you had been charge is not the same as proving that it would change to that state later.

Insofar as pursuit of the libertarian system is a gamble, and insofar as it violates legitimate expectations of fairness, i.e., insofar as there are consequentialist reasons to doubt the libertarian account of stability, and deontological reasons to contest the libertarian characterization of the initial procedural question, these are two convincing reasons to say the liberal answer to the institutional question is far superior to the libertarian one.  It rests on a firmer foundation and has more empirical proof to support it.  This doesn’t mean the liberal solution is without problems – most notably the difficulty in resolving the questions of deserve, and difficulty in the institutional complexity of distribution (both because it’s hard to know who deserves what and even if we could, it would be hard to distribute it fairly without significant problems with bureaucracy and corruption) – none of this is a reason to reject the liberal state simpliciter.  Libertarianism throws the baby out with the bathwater without providing sufficient normative justification or convincing empirical proof that their alternative will lead to an arrangement that would vitiate the lack of normative justification.

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4 Responses to Liberalism and Libertarianism – Some Contrasts and Why They Matter

  1. John says:

    I liked the piece but I think you’re giving the Libertarians too much credit – I find most Libertarians I’ve debated with use their ideology as a way of justifying their own privilege. Even if it’s not often defended as such, I find that there’s a premise of entitlement underlying most Libertarian thought. Few Libertarians actually think that the distribution of wealth, property, etc. before government is random or a result of anything other than personal accomplishment.

    The whole “you didn’t build that” kerfuffle really highlights the underlying premise that so often ties Libertarianism into the broader culture conservative movement (as much as they’d be loathe to admit it) – rich white, Protestant men has most of the power and wealth because they deserved most of the power and wealth because they’d earned most of the power and wealth.

    As you say, Libertarianism is a tricky thing to pin down and, more often than not, that’s through design. It’s not coincidental that, were one to try and reverse-engineer and seemingly-progressive philosophy that would also justify rigidly entrenching status quo wealth and power distribution, Libertarianism would be about the best you could hope to come up with. The trick is that the whole rugged invidualist/personal opportunity myth as opposed to a more communitarian vision is so viscerally appealing that it’s an easy sell even to those on the outside of power looking in.

  2. Nates says:

    John, you should read the previous post (and the extended discussion) to see why Josh is engaged in this particular exercise.

    Josh, I like this a lot. The big picture is helpful, and there’s much in your critique that I agree with. Probably most of it. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind right now. (I’m sure I’ll have more later.)

    First, on the strawman accusation, I think the solution need not involve avoiding quoting particular thinkers. Personally, what I wanted from the previous post was more Nozick and less Ari Fleischer. If you focused on more intellectually sophisticated versions of Libertarianism, you might even find that it’s not as Protean as you think it is. (That said, I do agree with you that there are some foundational issues that even the best Libertarian thinkers tend to blur over in various ways–I plan to come back to this point soon.)

    Second, you put a lot of the weight on the idea that “Everything was always already social.” I agree with this, of course, and I agree that it poses a challenge for Libertarian thinkers. Of course, it’s also a challenge to the many Social Contract thinkers who appeal to the idea of a state of nature–even those that end up with a Contract that looks nothing like Libertarianism. For example: Hobbes. And his response is that it doesn’t really matter if there was never actually a solitary state of nature. It’s still useful as a hypothetical, counterfactual situation that we can reflect upon to justify particular political systems. So my question is: could the Libertarian make the same move here? I suspect you think they can’t, that the situations are different, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

  3. Josh says:

    Good points both.

    Regarding the idea of avoiding proper names – I can see why it would be useful to say “here is my exposition of Nozick’s theory, and here are my problems with it.” I thought, though, it might also be useful to say “here are two kinds of theories; one of them is preferable to the other. To the extent that Nozick’s [or someone else’s] is similar in important ways to the less favorable kind, it is problematic.” I just thought casting it like that allows people to bring other theorists’ ideas to the table and ask whether what I had to say about general categories helped us understand that specific thinker. But yes, you could proceed either way.

    As regards the second point, about social contract theory: the libertarian of course can describe things as the sort of hypothetical history in classic social contract theories. Robert Nozick, as you’re probably aware, does just that in _Anarchy, State and Utopia_. Nozick’s account echoes Locke’s more than Hobbes’ (a couple of Pittsburgh people did something similar with Hobbes – Hampton and Gautier I think? But I’ve never read them) but the overall effect is the same: we tell a hypothetical story, one that could have happened, and then use this to reflect on whether or not our current state of affairs is just.

    As a way into understanding why this move doesn’t help the libertarian, consider the fact that any given status quo has an infinite number of social-contract-like hypothetical histories that can be told about it, but not every one of those stories has much justificatory power. As a clearly absurd example – suppose I live in radically totalitarian society, and I say “this society is a just one, because it could have come about in the following way: the Great and Powerful Oz could have come along and told everyone what the laws should be, and we would have all consented had that happened. The laws the Great and Powerful Oz could have proposed could have been the very laws that govern our society. Therefore our society is just.”

    Obviously *a* story, but not a good enough one to do the serious work of justifying a system of government. But the problem is NOT, “that’s not what actually happened.” Which speaks to your point: no social contract story is TRUE, or even meant to be. It’s meant somehow to highlight important aspects of our present system and allow us to reflect on them.

    So what then IS the problem with libertarian social contract narratives? They bring to the table pre-social understandings of distribution, and so assume what they set out to prove. They say: “imagine if we were all living absent a government, what would we have? We’d have x, y and z. So we could have all agreed to share x, but keep y and z for ourselves. Therefore we should have a government that shares x (i.e., money to pay for police and fire), but y and z should remain ours.”

    The liberal critique of this idea is – but where did x, y and z come from? Any world that has led to people possessing x, y and z is a world in which social decisions have already been made. But what we are now talking about is the fair terms of social cooperation in general. The libertarian social-contract narrative is therefore question-begging. And the question it has begged is precisely the one we have come together to answer, namely, who deserves what? This is not to deny that we don’t deserve SOME of what we work for, it’s just to deny that we can isolate a determinate amount BEFORE the process of reasoning about the social contract begins. We can only ask about what we all have in common, in terms of our common interests. And we do all have a common interest in having a zone of personal freedom, but we do not have a pre-institutional set of goods we “would have had” in the absence of government, at least not a set we can determine and separate from the social contributions of such a set.

    So I come back again to the idea that we were always already social. The liberal social-contract narrative is more present-tense. It can always be entered into and renegotiated. The libertarian social contract narrative is much more of the “Great-and-Powerful-Oz” type story, even though it might not sound like it. It says “imagine this is how things were, and then how they became transformed.” The liberal needs no such recourse.

    Another way to see this point is – what are the assumptions about personhood made in the libertarian social contract story? They’re ones that focus ONLY on the individual, and more or less ignore the social aspect of production. They say “person P possesses x, y and z as a result of their labor; what arrangements should we make to protect these possessions?” (Locke and Nozick both sound ver similar to this). The liberal alternative says “person P possesses x, y and z as a result BOTH of their individual labor and as a result of social cooperation (Rousseau’s account in “The Origins of Inequality” is usefully read like this). Since we cannot extricate the one from the other, what arrangements should be made the regulate social cooperation and private-property holding?” The latter is more true to the conditions of social existence than the former, and thereby will produce a theory more capable of producing the necessary justification. There’s a third alternative here, one that ignores the individual component entirely, and just sees the social (Hobbes’ is somewhat like this -in privileging ONLY a desire for safety). But liberalism recognizes BOTH individual and social components, it just sees them as impossible to separate prior to theorizing about justice.

    Even as I say that I feel like there’s a germ of an idea here I’m not adequately expressing. Rawls writes in his introduction something very close to “I have attempted here to use the devices of the traditional social contract theory of Locke, Rousseau and Kant, but raised to a level of abstraction that avoids the problems often felt fatal to it” (I don’t have my book, but the sentence is very close to that). The idea is to sidestep hypothetical history, and instead construct a present-tense “device of representation” – the original position – that allows us to model a conception of the person and then explore the normative consequences of that conception. Libertarianism, in an important sense, remains wedded to hypothetical history in a way that liberalism does not. There is no need for myth-making in liberalism’s account

    I think what Rawls has in mind about “problems felt fatal to [the social contract tradition],” he means debates about historicity and whether it’s relevant, tacit consent, and so on, all bugbears for Locke and Lockean systems, like Nozick’s (granted, Rawls was writing before Nozick, but anticipates his arguments in many ways). In a way, Rousseau and Kant’s critique of Locke are what Rawls is raising to “a higher level of abstraction” – specifically Rousseau’s suggestion that the Lockean social contract theory “writes everywhere of civil man, while meaning to speak of natural man” (again, I don’t have my book, but something like that). Locke, in other words, ignores the social inputs on a process and calls that process natural, and then reifies it in his theory’s final outcomes.

    Many years ago I wrote two papers – one comparing Locke and Rousseau, another comparing Locke and Hobbes – working out many of these issues. Perhaps I’ll see if they make sense to share on the blog (after re-reading and rectifying undergraduate oversimplifications of course).

    I see now this comment has gotten quite long. I think it’s because being able to explain why the social-contract/hypothetical history move actually is just another metaphor for re-stating the initial contrast I made is interesting, but also complicated undertaking.

    So really short answer – it’s not that libertarianism can’t make the social contract historical move – it’s that it MUST, and when it does so, it must postulate a mythological history that only bears fruit if you already believe that mythology, and so cannot use the one to justify the other.

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