“Between liberty and equality, there can be but little fraternity.” (Montesquieu, correspondence with Voltaire)*
I’d like to follow up on our previous discussion of Libertarianism, as a way of getting clearer on the position I was tentatively putting forward there. Well, it’s still somewhat tentative, but I’ll go for it.
Let’s start with some common ground: the failure of standard attempts to ground liberty on some pre-social free individual. I don’t buy into this way of using social contracts, for all the reasons Josh has pointed out in previous posts. Basically, it’s turtles and sociality all the way down.
That said, I wonder how much this sort of account really captures why people become Libertarians in the first place. As a kind of sociological hypothesis, I suspect that most of them only turn to these arguments after the fact. Originally, they’re more likely to be responding to more immediate problems concerning excessive state interference in our lives. (It’s no coincidence that the Volokh family of Libertarian bloggers were born in the oppressive Soviet Union and escaped to America as children.) Once people are established as Libertarians, perhaps they feel pressured to provide a theoretical foundation for their views, which leads them to these problematic state-of-nature myths.
In previous posts, I’ve suggested that there’s a different and better way of grounding a version of Libertarianism. I linked this to Aristotle’s idea of human flourishing (eudaimonia / happiness) as the goal of political life. To this I add the distinctly modern idea that what counts as flourishing will vary from one person to another–what makes me happy might not make you happy at all. Given this variability, it’s best to let people freely pursue the lives they wish to live—at least as far as possible. 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. (Here I’m just plagiarizing what I said before.) Excessive state interference in our lives threatens this freedom, and thus threatens human flourishing. Out of this emerges a libertarian principle: we should limit government as much as possible to encourage free human flourishing.
Admittedly, what I’m describing doesn’t look like the standard version of Libertarianism. In fact, one might even suspect that it’s not so different from standard equity-based accounts of justice (as in Rawls). To a certain extent, this has to be right. Bauer’s Libertarianism (should we call it Blibertarianism?) makes freedom the capstone of political life, not its foundation. Like many forms of Liberalism, it demands robust social institutions to secure equality of opportunity, and thus provides some support for the modern welfare state.
(As an aside, this is one reason to think that continued rhetorical focus on the concept of liberty could have political payoffs. If traditional Libertarians can be convinced that liberty is a robust social accomplishment, rather than a natural given, then they might be convinced that greater redistribution to fund the necessary institutions is warranted. We won’t want to mention Hegel to them, but we’ll know…)
Anyway, Josh seems to be defending a version of the above equivalency claim when he writes:
“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.
This is where I’d like to push back a little. While they may come from the same place, I’m convinced there’s still a vital difference between the two positions—and thus that there’s a distinct, quasi-Libertarian view worth considering. So, I claim that Blibertarianism is not just equality by another name, and it would have significantly different political implications.
Here I need to make a kind of confession. Although I like Rawls and I’m glad he’s the inspiration for the name of our blog, I have to admit that there’s a lot of Theory of Justice that I don’t care for at all. For me, it’s all about the veil of ignorance and the initial work Rawls does with this thought experiment. But we part ways soon after that. I certainly never would’ve agreed to call our blog “Maximins.” And I have serous reservations about the Difference Principle.
Here’s what bothers me about it. Once we recognize the value of striving to accomplish our own ends, the Difference Principle starts to look problematic. Why? Because it’s largely _indifferent_ to how the “proper” allocation of resources is achieved. And when I try to picture how this would be implemented, it seems that it would inevitably involved some sort of top-down, centralized, state-managed system of distribution. (I can’t see how unequal distributions that were not to the benefit of those worst off could otherwise be avoided.) This would surely thwart the free individual’s selection and pursuit of life goals.
Given these concerns, I believe that equality has been WAY overrated on the left. It’s not a primary value. (You first have to be shown deserving of equality—after all, animals and plants don’t get it!) Demanding equality is presumptuous—in that you end up deciding what’s good for me. And enforcing equality is often harmful, especially when we factor in the tendency for overreach. Here I’ll make a sweeping historical claim. Our contemporary, over-regulated, paternalistic, dumbed-down society is largely a product of 20th Century technocratic/liberal thinking, focused on maximizing equality. I hate that so many of our choices are needlessly constrained. Through a thousand tiny cuts, we’re made stupider and less capable of thriving as people.
Here’s one final way of putting the problem. When your goal is equality, all the emphasis will be on active, government-enforced redistribution. There’s no countervailing force. By contrast, when you focus on liberty as a social achievement, you still get the key benefit of equality: support for robust institutions securing fair opportunity for all. But there’s now a force of resistance in place. Government intervention is justified only to the extent that it’s required to secure the conditions for creating free, flourishing individuals. It should be limited to this role.
* Strictly speaking, Montesquieu never actually said this, as far as I know.