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.