Libertarianism and the Blue Ridge Parkway (Part One)

In recent posts, I’ve been exploring a (loosely) Libertarian line of thought. While I don’t think standard Libertarian accounts adequately ground their positions, I do believe that there are important insights to be gleaned from the tradition. I’ve sketched out the foundation for a reformed version–which David has helpfully coined “Teleological Libertarianism.” (I should acknowledge here that I’m simply unsure how original the view is. I haven’t seen anything quite like it, but I really don’t know the literature in this field all that well. But, whether it’s original or not, I have found it helpful to work through these ideas on the blog. And hopefully it’s been interesting for others to read and think about.)

There’s much that I find attractive about this position, and I believe it provides a valuable corrective to the excessive trust in state authority that I see in many on the left. But I certainly don’t claim to have mapped out a complete account—far from it! It’s really still just a line of thought that I’m exploring, and I have my own doubts about Teleological Libertarianism.

One such doubt arose earlier this summer, when I was vacationing in the Virginias and North Carolina. We did some hiking along the Appalachian Trail, and we briefly drove along part of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

BRPAs I looked out over this beautiful vista, I found myself thinking: “This wouldn’t exist if my T. Lib. was in place.” And, in the moment, it struck me that this would be a tremendous loss.

As a reminder, my version of Libertarianism emerges from reflections on the fragile nature of human autonomy. Rousseau famously declared: “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” My position emerges from messing around a little with the first part of that remark. Strictly speaking, we’re not born free. As babies, we’re utterly dependent on others, and we never entirely lose this dependency. What we are born with, however—as Rousseau surely knew—is the potential to be free. Actualizing that potential is a significant social accomplishment.

This fact already complicates the traditional social contract story. There we have independently free individuals, agreeing to submit to state authority in order to escape the state of nature. Now we see that the state is needed earlier in the process, to help as many individuals as possible become autonomous people. So, there is a crucial role for the state in providing a good education for all (since ignorance is a form of enslavement); in providing universal health care (since sickness limits one’s freedom); and so on. You can fill in the list.

What we end up with is a system in which the autonomy of some individuals is partially constrained (through taxation, etc.) in order to develop and actualize the autonomy of others. But it’s reasonable to agree to this constraint, since no one would willingly allow their own potential freedom not to be realized.

So, we have a defense of state authority in place. But this still counts as a form of Libertarianism, I believe, for the sphere of authority is sharply limited. The state does have a necessary role in in producing autonomous people. But once this freedom is in place, the state also has an obligation to respect it.

What does it mean to respect freedom? Borrowing some ideas from Aristotle, I maintain that free human beings have a distinct form of happiness or flourishing from that of other animals. It’s not enough for us to simply have our needs and wants satisfied. It’s also important that these achievements are the product of our own decisions and efforts (at least in part). As I put it in an earlier post, “dogs and cats can flourish in a tightly-regulated system. People can’t.”

This places a substantial limit on state authority. There is an obligation to step back and allow people to first choose their own goals in life and then strive to achieve them. (This also means letting people fail in the pursuit of their chosen ends. I suspect that failure is also an important part of being free.) As long as the actions of free individuals are not limiting the actualization of other people’s freedom, the state should stay out of the way. Why? Because this is essential to properly respecting our autonomy.

That turned out to be a longer summary than I was intending. But I think it’s the clearest expression of my position that I’ve manged to produce so far. With this in place, it should be evident why projects such as the Blue Ridge Parkway are in tension with my account. After all, building a scenic road through Appalachia is not essential to the actualization of the potential autonomy of individuals. Perhaps highways in general—or some sort of public transportation system—could be justified in this way, but the Parkway is not in any way an essential route.

So, my view seems to imply that the state had no right to build this road. It could only justly exist if it had come about through the free choices of individuals devoting themselves to the task, and that would seem very unlikely to happen. Thus: no Blue Ridge Parkway on my preferred system of justice, which, as I noted, would be a real shame.

Now, the loss of beautiful mountain roads is not in itself a fatal objection to my account, even if we all agree on the sheer goodness of the Parkway. (We’d still have universal health care to console us on our flat, joyless drives.) Just because principle P doesn’t allow some positive good G, that doesn’t mean that P is wrong. (Analogously: there are all sorts of goods that could only—or much more easily—be achieved through murder, but that doesn’t speak against the prohibition on murder.) Nonetheless, it would be disappointing to have to give up on the many (non-essential to the actualization of autonomy) social goods that require State intervention.

So, I’ve been thinking about whether (and how) my account could be modified to address this concern. In part two, I’ll explore some possible solutions. Until then, I just want to flag this as an issue for my view.

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