Libertarianism Again

While writing about libertarianism a few weeks ago, I came across a 2011 article at Slate by Stephen Metcalf called “The Liberty Scam”. Its subtitle is “Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired”. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I highly recommend the article if you’ve ever considered yourself an economic libertarian or tried to argue with one. Or if you have an interest in politics or the recent history of ideas.

Metcalf points out that modern, generally right-wing economic libertarianism relies on a very selective view of capitalism. In particular, Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain argument equates all economic activity with the special case of an extremely talented basketball player who can negotiate a stratospheric salary. Nozick claimed that someone like Wilt Chamberlain should be able to negotiate whatever salary the market will bear, and that forcing Chamberlain to pay taxes in order to benefit other people is forced labor (“Need a gardener allocate his services to those lawns which need him most?”). The rest of us, presumably, are a lot like Wilt Chamberlain.

After demolishing the Chamberlain argument and briefly explaining why Nozick came to appreciate that society is more than a random collection of individuals, Metcalf tries to explain why someone as thoughtful as Robert Nozick would make the arguments he did. Metcalf’s theory is that in 1970, when Nozick published Anarchy, State and Utopia, America and places like Harvard had benefited from decades of enormous government investment:

The GI Bill was on its way to investing more in education grants, business loans, and home loans than all previous New Deal programs combined. By 1954, with the Cold War in full swing, the U.S. government was spending 20 times what it had spent on research before the war.

As a result, members of the academic elite, including Harvard professors, were sharing in the general economic prosperity, even if their salaries hadn’t matched Wilt Chamberlain’s. Unfortunately for their bank accounts, however, tax rates were much higher than today. In 1969, when Nozick was writing his classic book, the highest federal tax rate was 77%, almost twice what it is now. It’s no wonder that Nozick saw virtue in a political ideology that considers taxation beyond the bare minimum a kind of theft:

By allowing for the enormous rise in (relative) income and prestige of the upper white collar professions, Keynesianism created the very blind spot by which professionals turned against Keynesianism…. Many upper-white-collar professionals convinced themselves their pre-eminence was not an accident of history or the product of negotiated protections from the marketplace but the result of their own unique mental talents fetching high prices in a free market for labor. Just this cocktail of vanity and delusion helped Nozick edge out [the liberal philosophy of John] Rawls in the marketplace of ideas, making Anarchy a surprise best-seller. It helped make Ronald Reagan president five years later. So it was the public good that killed off the public good.

One day the tide will turn (maybe). In the meantime, I was going to sum up with that well-known quote to the effect that we in the modern world are ignorantly walking in the footsteps of some obscure academic of the past, but couldn’t find the damn quotation (clearly, search engines haven’t got artificial intelligence quite yet). So I decided to go with a remark attributed, probably incorrectly, to Abraham Lincoln:

The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

But while writing the previous paragraph, a key word popped into my head, namely, “scribbler”, which is the term John Maynard Keynes used when he wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 35 years before Robert Nozick wrote Anarchy, State and Utopia:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back….Sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

Republicans and Liberty, Part 4 (the End?)

When I think of what it means to be a Republican economic libertarian, I think of someone I know — call him “Bob”. He is a very affluent periodontist who lives in an enormous house in a beautiful suburb. Some years ago, Bob expressed his outrage over being forced to pay property taxes in support of the local public schools, since his own children were being educated privately. That’s an attitude that perfectly captures the essence of economic libertarianism:

What’s mine is mine and the rest of you, the damn government, shouldn’t take it away from me for something I don’t care about and isn’t doing me any good!

If Bob had read a certain book by another Bob (the late Robert Nozick), he might have expressed his outrage with a brief argument: 

1) It’s the most fundamental principle of morality that people should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means toward achieving someone else’s goals or for someone else’s benefit.
(2) Taking my property against my will in order to benefit other people is treating me as a means, not an end.
(3) When the local government forces me to pay property taxes to fund the local school district, the government is taking my property against my will.
(4) Therefore, the government should not force me to pay taxes to support public schools.

What’s wrong with this argument?

One serious problem is that it depends on a hidden assumption: namely, that the first sentence is not merely an important principle of morality, but the supreme principle that overrides all other moral principles. That’s a questionable assumption. Life, for both philosophers and normal people, is too rambunctious to fit under a single ethical umbrella. There are always exceptions and additional considerations.

When we were teenagers, for example, didn’t we all joke that the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to masochists (you know, do unto others…)? Similarly, imagine an isolated town in Alaska that’s been hit by a dangerous epidemic. The local pharmacist has a drug that will attack the disease but insists on full payment (or 75% of the price or whatever) before distributing his supply. He’s not a bad person — maybe he needs the money because he’s deeply in debt and on the verge of losing his store.

If the single overriding principle of morality is that we should always treat everyone else as an end, not a means, the town’s residents should accept the situation and either come up with the cash or do a lot of praying. Or are they justified in confiscating the drug, distributing it among themselves and watching the pharmacist go bankrupt? Can we apply principle (1) all by itself to solve this problem? I don’t think so. Principle (1), the philosophical basis for economic libertarianism, doesn’t say whose ends are more important when they conflict.

Fortunately, there are other ethical rules that come into play in situations like this (even though those rules aren’t foolproof or all-encompassing either). The British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, if he were available as an ethical consultant, would probably agree that treating everyone as a means, not an end, is a decent enough moral principle. But only because it tends to support a more important moral principle: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. In other words, we should always do what will ultimately result in the most happiness for the most people (including a town full of sick Alaskans and kids going to public school in New Jersey). 

Here’s another problem with this argument. It’s incredibly self-centered. If it’s valid, the principle that people should be treated as ends, not means, applies to those kids at the public school just as much as it applies to my acquaintance Bob. But how can Bob treat those children as ends? A really excellent way would be to pay the taxes that will help them get an education.

In fact, if Bob refuses to help those kids, he seems to be treating them as means, not ends. Some of them will grow up and take jobs in the community, working in stores, or maintaining roads, or performing heart surgery. Will Bob benefit from their labor? It’s true he might directly pay for their services one day, but he’ll also benefit from living in a community that’s safe and prosperous because of the work performed by people he’ll never bump into.

Consider what his life would be like if the few people selling groceries in his town were the only people selling groceries in the state of New Jersey. His town would still be a great place to live if he could find food on the shelves and didn’t mind checkout lines that were 20 miles long.

There’s also a problem with how this argument seems to identify me with my property. How do people acquire property anyway? The French anarchist Proudhon had an opinion: “Property is theft!” How was the first piece of property acquired? It was a long time ago, so we don’t know. But we do know that not one of us begins life as a clean slate and grows up in perfect isolation. The argument above suggests that taking any of my property against my will is a violation of my humanity regardless of where my property came from. That probably sounds plausible to whoever wrote the sentence I quoted in an earlier post, the one that referred to “the sanctity of private property”.

But are property rights sacred? Are they more sacred than anything else, like kindness or compassion? Are property rights so sacred that the tax collector who takes part of your paycheck against your will — for purposes other than the common defense and the maintenance of a free market — is committing a sin or a crime against humanity? Maybe if you think every penny you earn is solely the result of your God-given wonderfulness and had nothing to do with your genes or your upbringing. Or if you identify yourself with your property.

Like it or not, as everyone knows, we are social animals who grow up and survive in communities. Economic libertarianism, however, is a radically individualistic doctrine. It’s also simplistic and atomistic (in the social sense, not the physical sense). It reeks of adolescence.

A teenager, usually a boy for some reason, trying to figure out how to navigate the world, in the process of breaking away from his parents, looks for words that will explain other people and help him feel good about himself. Maybe he makes the mistake of reading Atlas Shrugged instead of The Lord of the Rings or The Brothers Karamazov: 

“Pleasure is all that really matters.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Poor people are stupid or lazy”.
“If God doesn’t exist, all is permitted.”
“Asking for help shows you’re a loser.”
“When I earn money, I should be able to keep it.”

Taken to its extreme, in fact, economic libertarianism reeks of infancy. We all have to share. That’s what we’re supposed to learn before we get to kindergarten.

Of course, there are probably few economic libertarians who hold the doctrine in its purest form. No doubt there are some who debate the finer points, howeverlike Russian intellectuals who debated the finer points of communism before the revolution. A wonderful person can have libertarian tendencies along with common sense. It’s all a matter of degree. Where on that chart above should people reside? Where does Senator RP reside? Where do you reside? 

I’m not sure, but I’m proud to say I’m not a Republican or an economic libertarian. I’m also not a “social liberal and fiscal conservative”. That’s too often code for comfortable people who enjoy their station in life while consistently supporting right-wing candidates and policies, the kind that “comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted”, not the other way around.  


(Photo courtesy of Philosopher Shaming.)

Republicans and Liberty, Part 1

It’s one of those enduring questions: why are there Republicans?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve been thinking about the existence of one kind of Republican lately: the Libertarian. The principal libertarian Republican in the news these days is a Senator from Kentucky whose initials are RP. Some of the people who spend their time on Earth guessing about such things think RP is the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination (even though the primaries and caucuses are still two years away). 

I started thinking about RP and other Republican libertarians when this question popped into my head: do Republican libertarians support the American Civil Liberties Union? The ACLU famously devotes itself to protecting various rights and liberties, especially those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Shouldn’t Republican libertarians be in favor of their work? Yet that seemed unlikely, since the ACLU is a well-known “liberal” organization and we all know how Republicans feel about liberals.

A little bit of research suggests that Republican libertarians support some of the ACLU’s work, but definitely not all of it. The reason for this mixed attitude is that Republican libertarians are generally “economic” libertarians, while the libertarians at the ACLU are (as you might suppose) “civil” libertarians.

Economic libertarians believe the individual is supremely important, especially when it comes to private property and the fruits of one’s labor.They hold that government’s principal purpose is to protect the rest of us from criminals and foreign aggressors, not to provide for the general welfare. They believe we should all be allowed to do what we want so long as we don’t infringe on other people’s rights.

Hence, economic libertarians favor laissez-faire, the principle that private parties should be allowed to engage in economic activity with minimal government interference, involvement or assistance. The government should only tax, regulate or subsidize economic activity in order to insure the existence of a free market, in which all of us, being responsible for our own success or failure, can fairly compete.

The basic argument for economic libertarianism was strongly stated by the philosopher Robert Nozick (who borrowed some of it from Immanuel Kant) in his classic book Anarchy, State and Utopia: all human beings should be treated as ends, not means, so it’s wrong to take from one person to help another. Basically, my tax dollars should not benefit you without my consent. Otherwise I’ve been made a kind of slave.

To sum up, in the words of one self-described libertarian: “Real libertarians understand that freedom of speech and other civil liberties depend on the sanctity of private property – not its violation by anti-discrimination laws and other forms of government intervention.”

So, economic libertarians endorse some of the ACLU’s work, such as supporting freedom of speech and the right of assembly, but oppose a lot of it, such as the ACLU’s support for anti-discrimination laws (because an employer should be able to discriminate against potential employees on the basis of race or gender) and the supposed right of all children to an equal public education at taxpayer expense. 

Economic libertarians appear to disagree among themselves on other issues. One troublesome example is abortion rights, which the ACLU obviously supports. Economic libertarians would presumably support abortion rights too (it’s my body) but not if they think a fetus is already a person (in which case, the fetus already has rights that need to be protected). Voting rights is another interesting case. The ACLU strongly favors voting rights for all Americans, including ex-prisoners, but some economic libertarians think that committing a felony means you’ve forfeited your right to vote.

To test my understanding of the difference between economic and civil libertarians, and to see what that famous libertarian Republican has to say, I spent some time on Senator LP’s website. More about that tomorrow, as well as some thoughts on economic libertarianism in general.