Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

2

Libertarians & the Secular Right

Over at Volokh Conspiracy Ilya Somin points to this weblog, and notes:

Although one of the four contributors (Olson) is more libertarian than conservative, the main focus of the blog seems to be on the latter. After all, few doubt that one can be both an atheist and a libertarian. Many of the most influential libertarian thinkers of modern times were atheists or agnostics (e.g. – Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand). Although there are also some highly religious libertarian intellectuals, including some of my co-bloggers here at the VC, few if any libertarian theists doubt that an atheist can be just as much a libertarian as they are.

I wish I could be a libertarian. But my current understanding of human nature makes me not much of one. My own inclination is to err on the side of liberty, but unfortunately I do not believe that the broad license of liberty which most libertarians believe right and proper would be conducive to the flourishing of human society or the contentment of most individuals.*  I am willing to be convinced otherwise and brought back to the libertarian fold…. (Also, I consider libertarianism a species of liberalism, only tactically aligned with American conservatism, though temporary alliances stretched out may take on an air of permanence)

* Since most libertarians today derive their position from utilitarianism, the disagreement here is about what is more than how things should be (i.e., if most libertarians were grounded in Natural Rights it might be the latter).

14 comments

  • Andrew T. · December 2, 2008 at 8:03 am

    DH: I have no interest in persuading you of a proposition that I don’t accept, but you might find Robert Nozick’s seminal text Anarchy, State and Utopia interesting (or an interesting refresher). My understanding is that many libertarians today derive their position from Nozick’s rather interesting blend of social contractarianism and Kantianism — which is pretty far removed from utilitarianism!

  • The Secular Left « · December 2, 2008 at 8:13 am

    […] culture and limited government are best understood as empirical propositions (something that other contributors to the Secular Right are quite open […]

  • Uncle Kenny · December 2, 2008 at 8:19 am

    “Also, I consider libertarianism a species of liberalism, only tactically aligned with American conservatism, though temporary alliances stretched out may take on an air of permanence”
    It is worth pointing out, I think, that most hard-core liberals I know would make the same statement with the words “liberalism” and “conservatism” swapped. As a libertarian, I view that as a measure of success.
    Also your footnote cries for elaboration of the meaning of “Natural Rights” in a secular context. Clearly you do not mean in the absence of the supernatural. On the other hand, most libertarians may derive positions from utilitarianism because there are few alternatives when belief in the supernatural is simply impossible … absent a coherent evolutionary-biological basis for a position.

  • Tim of Angle · December 2, 2008 at 9:23 am

    Of course you could be a libertarian, if you put your mind to it; there are almost as many flavors of “libertarian” as there are of “Republican”.

    What you *cannot* be is “a conservative”, because “conservative” is a character trait, not a political position. Along with “liberal”, it is one of the most weasely weasel-words in modern discourse.

    It is possible to be a “conservative libertarian” while being either religious or non-religious; Mr Olson and I are proof of that (unless he has changed his opinions dramatically since we were undergraduates). We may be on opposite sides of the boat, but we’re still rowing in the same direction.

  • Tim Kowal · December 2, 2008 at 10:52 am

    “[U]nfortunately I do not believe that the broad license of liberty which most libertarians believe right and proper would be conducive to the flourishing of human society or the contentment of most individuals.”

    I believe you have just cited the key objection to the title of your blog: “flourishing,” at least for everyone not in the intellectual elite (and perhaps for them as well), must include some presuppositions about the meaning and purpose of human life and our individual and collective endeavors. Religion provides that in more or less a systematic fashion. (“More” or “less” depending on the particular religion.) Strict secularism, in my view, leads to human flourishing only by accident.

    Thus, if it is human flourishing you are after, religion cannot be brushed aside without great care. Indeed, casting off religion inevitably leads to the unwitting formulation of some new set of presuppositions about the human experience — which will not inaccurately also be called “religion.” This is the anti-religionists’ paradox that ultimately wrecks the whole enterprise.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 2, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I have no interest in persuading you of a proposition that I don’t accept, but you might find Robert Nozick’s seminal text Anarchy, State and Utopia interesting (or an interesting refresher). My understanding is that many libertarians today derive their position from Nozick’s rather interesting blend of social contractarianism and Kantianism — which is pretty far removed from utilitarianism!

    I’ve read Nozick. I was a pretty “hardcore” libertarian once…used to buy copies of David Boaz’s Libertarianism: A primer and give them to friends who I thought were promising (never an Objectivist though!). My understanding is that Nozick is to libertarianism what Ursula K. Le Guin is to science fiction, he’s the libertarian thinker that non-libertarians know about, in large part because he was a mainstream philosopher who wasn’t primarily a libertarian thinker who engaged giants of the field such as John Rawls (from what I recall ASaU was something of a rejoinder to A Theory of Justice). Which all makes sense since by the end of his life he had disavowed libertarian political orientation (see the implication in Examined Life). Though unlike Rawls Nozick wasn’t even primarily a political philosopher, though that’s how the broader public probably knew him.

    Thus, if it is human flourishing you are after, religion cannot be brushed aside without great care. Indeed, casting off religion inevitably leads to the unwitting formulation of some new set of presuppositions about the human experience — which will not inaccurately also be called “religion.” This is the anti-religionists’ paradox that ultimately wrecks the whole enterprise.

    OK. Have to scream again: I AM NOT INTENT ON A JIHAD AGAINST RELIGION AS SUCH, OR BANISHING RELIGION FROM HUMAN CULTURE. IN FACT, I THINK THAT FOR MOST HUMANS SOME FORM OF CULTURAL-COGNITIVE SYSTEM WE TERM RELIGION IS INEVITABLE. Do not misrepresent me again.

    To be fair, I think I will put an FAQ section so that instead of screaming I can refer people to that instead of having to repeat myself. It is rather annoying to have to reaffirm that I don’t hold to the ludicrous propositions which people assume that I affirm. This is one reason that data beats theory, what you think you know is often not what really is. Secular != militant atheist.

  • Andrew T. · December 2, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    DH: Dead on, and I’m not surprised. But I do think it’s interesting that there are deontological arguments for libertarianism out there. (And, by contrast, many of today’s left-liberals seem to draw inspiration — to the extent they have a political philosophy in the first place — from act-utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham.)

  • mph · December 2, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Where do you come down on the drug war?

  • mph · December 2, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    I also have a hard time believing that the majority of libertarians (defined in the loose sense) are actual “utilitarians.”

  • Tim Kowal · December 2, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    I did not mean to misrepresent you. In fact, I still do not think I did, if I read your “What is the Secular Right” page, and my own post, correctly. To be honest, I am as much against religionists who do not take philosophy seriously as I am against philosophers who do not take religion seriously. It just so happens that, of those two groups, only the latter is generally ever capable of engaging in serious dialogue.

    At any rate, I am pleased to know that you are not a “militant atheist.” Their supply far exceeds their demand these days. And I will endeavor not to elicit further bold-caps responses to future comments.

  • CLS · December 2, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    A survey of readers of Liberty magazine is not indicative of the views of most libertarians. The former editor of that publication was a utilitarian and pushed those ideas in his publication. I would think that would skew any survey of readers of that publication. One could take a survey of readers of an Objectivist publication and get different results but neither is indicative of the whole.

    I do agree that libertarianism is a branch of liberalism and not related to conservatism. Conservatives today are more the enemies of liberty than its friends. And they are not necessarily good allies for libertarians.

    I also find the alleged conflict between utilitarianism and natural law theory to be mostly illusionary.

  • James · December 3, 2008 at 8:44 am

    I had always thought that the Austrians’ work on epistemology (originally in the economic realm, but later extended to social, cultural, and political thought as well) created an important bridge between economic liberalism (i.e. American libertarianism) and political conservatism. That is, the modern libertarian-conservative alliance largely stems from a shared suspicion of human ability (although conservatives tend to focus on moral failings while libertarians look to the epistemological impossibility of sub-groups correctly identifying the collective wants and desires of the whole), and this suspicion typically leads to a healthy skepticism of the promises of the leftists/progressives that they (or some uber-mensch/vanguard element within their ranks) are able to identify all of the problems with the human experience and to fix them. That being said, the solutions of the libertarians and conservatives are in tension – libertarians tend to focus on individual autonomy within society, whereas conservatives tend to focus on time-tested traditions as providing a bulwark for social rules that represent the collective wisdom of our ancestors. Nevertheless, the dispute about solutions does not wholly undermine the alliance, especially where the collectivists and leftists so successfully promote blind faith in their (and the “State’s”) abilities and moral rectitude.

    Although libertarians and conservatives may falter from this deep skepticism from time to time (libertarians sometimes overreach and assume that individuals merit complete autonomy in society, while conservatives sometimes forget their skepticism and place their hopes in a particular leader or set of leaders who sound as if they have risen above the original sin/moral failings typical of humanity), I think the alliance remains essentially vital.

  • Bealu · December 3, 2008 at 9:14 am

    “Where do you come down on the drug war?”

    Exactly. Forget the theory and word churning, let’s get empirical on the most pressing issue f the day: do you support incarcerating people for ingesting selected minerals?

    If you (a generic you) oppose it, that’s “libertarian” enough for me. Welcome to the party, I don’t care what you otherwise term your political philosophy.

    If, however, you support the drug war as presently constituted, well you’re a bigger reality denying moron than the most deluded evangelical, granted the categories are not mutually exclusive.

  • kurt9 · December 3, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    I think the original poster got it the wrong way around about human nature and libertarianism. It is because of human nature that not only am I more libertarian than ever, but that I consider libertarianism to be the ONLY valid political philosophy. My reasoning is thus:

    It is human nature for people act like bureaucrats and to create bureaucracy. It is a law of nature that bureaucracies are inherently dysfunctional. For this reason, all human institutions tend to become dysfunctional bureaucracies sooner or later. The larger the institution, the more of a dysfunctional bureaucracy it becomes. The more evil it becomes. Libertarianism is the only political philosophy that recognizes this perverse trait of human nature and, thus, does not recognize the legitimacy of human institutions above and beyond any real benefit they confer to people. Likewise, libertarianism is the only philosophy based on the idea that social order is based on bottom-up, spontaneous self-order rather than monolithic top-down hierarchy.

    Almost all scientific and industrial innovations have come as a result of individuals or small groups of individuals. Conversely, all of the government-funded big science projects have failed. NASA has not resulted in large-scale space settlement. The Tokamak program has not given us commercial fusion. Nixon’s war on cancer has not developed a cure for cancer. Almost all technological developments in the past 40 years have been in semiconductors and computers, which has been entirely privately developed (the FEDs decided several decades ago NOT to fund any solid state physics, which has been the wellspring of all the semiconductor developments). In addition, the REAL work to cure aging is being done by privately financed small groups of individuals. If any of these accomplishments are realized, they will be realized by small groups of individuals.

    I have worked for both large and small companies. My experience has been that any and all large scale institutions that I have dealt with have been dysfunctional bureaucracies. One of my best friends (who is a PhD chemist) did lots of government-funded research in alternative energy and space-related endeavors. He has also been a university professor as well. He does neither of these activities today. It is his opinion, based on his personal experience as well, that all of the government-funded stuff is completely dysfunctional to the point he believes that the rate of technological innovation would actually be faster if there was NO government funding of science and technology at all. He is even more libertarian than I am, and he is in his early 50’s.

    I find it amusing whenever anyone says that libertarians do not account for human nature. In fact, the contrary is the case in that libertarians only recognize the perverse nature of humans to engage in bureaucracy. All non-libertarian philosophies believe in the efficacy (value) of large scale human institutions and thus bureaucracy. Since my personal experience has been that bureaucracy is inherently dysfunctional, it is therefor irrational to believe in any non-libertarian philosophy.

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