The ends of liberty

In Reason, Are Property Rights Enough? Should libertarians care about cultural values? A reason debate. If politics are dispositions, then at the end of the day they still have to “point” to the “Good Life.” The norms that one’s ideology points to are generally not the function of calm and detached reflection in the the island of one’s ego. Rather, they emerge out of our concrete lived experiences. American libertarians tend to be secular young men, and that concretely impacts upon their conception of the “Good Life.”

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12 Responses to The ends of liberty

  1. Rowdower says:

    If politics are dispositions, then at the end of the day they still have to “point” to the “Good Life.”

    This is really the crux of the debate; I think most libertarians (Howley excepted, maybe) would argue that libertarianism is NOT a disposition or a blueprint for human flourishing, but instead a view about the proper size and role of government.

  2. TrueNorth says:

    Too often libertarianism degenerates into libertinism: since everything should be allowed then everything is equally valid. This is where libertarians lose conservatives. They lose liberals on the other side of the coin when they refuse to support social programs that produce the outcomes liberals desire simply because they don’t believe in government coercion. No wonder it is politically marginal.

    I think of myself as a libertarian-leaning conservative because although I oppose the heavy hand of government enforcing morality I don’t necessarily disagree with non-libertarian (and frequently religious) conservatives about what constitutes the “good life”. I just feel it is up to the individual to discover what the “good life” is and to act in accordance with their own conscience.

  3. jolly q says:

    If what determines libertarians’ cultural attitudes is that they are “secular young men”, does that predict libertarians identify more with liberals or with conservatives? Would you make a prediction, Razib, and then go looking for data to test it?

  4. John says:

    I’m firmly in Todd Seavey’s camp. Kerry Howley, like many on the left, misuses the work “freedom”. She talks about the “freedom” to go to a store even if the storeowner doesn’t want her to, the “freedom” to go to medical school even if no school will accept her, and the “freedom” not to be criticized for her life choices. She isn’t demanding freedom. She is demanding that other people give her what she wants.

    Seavey is entirely correct that libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a lifestyle. To be a libertarian, all you have to believe is that, as Rothbard put it, people don’t have the right to initiate force against each other. Indeed, if you do believe that people don’t have the right to initiate force against each other, it is pretty hard not to be libertarian. A libertarian can choose to have kids, stay single, wear a veil, get a sex change, or be totally average. The recognition that not everyone wants the same out of life is an important one.

    Howley laments that not everyone will be given a pro-liberty upbringing. Well, my kids will know who Milton Friedman was, but I am not willing to demand that all parents tell their kids about him if the price is that they get to tell me who I have to tell my kids about.

  5. Clark says:

    John, wouldn’t you agree that the word freedom has at time the sense of freedom to do something and not just freedom from. While I’m anything but a liberal, my big problem with Libertarianism has always been an odd view of freedom merely as freedom from government regulation. To the person trying to buy bread at a store it ultimately matters little whether it was a stupid law passed by a Congressperson or a stupid rule passed by a corporation that keeps them out of the store. The problem is they can’t buy bread…

    The problem liberals have is that they adopt a fairly naive view of incentives which lets them go crazy with so called positive rights.

  6. Gotchaye says:

    It seems to me that there are two kinds of libertarians. There are libertarians who disagree with liberals on matters of fact and there are libertarians who disagree with liberals on matters of principle. A libertarian might value positive liberties while not thinking that government action is an effective way of securing them, or a libertarian can simply think that positive liberties aren’t valuable enough to justify government coercion in securing them.

    The first is at worst merely mistaken, seen from a liberal perspective. But sure, it’s plausibly the case that many of the second sort would have a very different opinion if they weren’t generally privileged, and that their libertarianism stems from self-interested values – they’re concerned about governmental coercion and not social pressure because they only ever have to worry about the former.

    I’m more sympathetic to Howley, but I think her argument is pretty thin. She’s not going to get anywhere assuming that her audience applies utilitarian criteria to state action – that’s what she does, but it’s not what the on-principle libertarians do. The best thing she could do would be to try to show that there’s no relevant distinction between social and government action, for example by arguing that libertarian-approved social coercion can accomplish almost everything that government coercion can.

  7. David Hume says:

    does that predict libertarians identify more with liberals or with conservatives? Would you make a prediction, Razib, and then go looking for data to test it?

    how would you test “identify more with”? there’s the old joke that a libertarian is a conservative man who dates liberal women.

  8. Mike H says:

    The main problem with Howley’s point is that she is essentially calling for libertarians to embrace leftists on social issues, that’s of course the leftists who have for the last 60 years known only one cure for removing “limiting, oppressing” social pathologies and traditions and that is government intervention and coercion.

    And that exposes the seed of statism in her thought, reading between the lines that poisonous seed of “Yes We Can” world-improver mentality is all too apparent.

    Libertarians already appear to oppose most state-driven attempts to prop up certain kinds of morality yet as she explicitly says, to her opposition to government mandated morality isn’t enough. There needs to be some kind of positive action as far as she is concerned. Now something tells me that writing letters to Chinese men to nicely ask them to grant their wives and daughters more liberty is not primarily what she is pursuing here.

    And that leads you to that crossroads that a belief in “positive freedoms” tends to bring you to and basically to that point where classical liberals turned into state-expanding leftists. If you have identified a social pathology you seek to remove but the group of people invested in that pathology is not at all interested in changing its ways and seems immune to any educational or moral appeals on the issue, well you either have to put up with it or if the issue seems urgent enough you will think about drafting laws forcing this group to change its ways and eventually you will think about sending in troops to enforce these laws.

    Howley identifies social pathologies like nationalism or the patriarchy and later mentions racism as well, clearly those things are extremely reprehensible to her. Now what is she asking for? What do you do about these things if a town is completely invested in such pathologies as you perceive them and you feel bad about the women, children, non-whites who seem to quietly accept their fate and even upon prompting might not show any negativity towards the status quo. And here, Howley makes the next Leftist jump, she attributes it all to false consciousness, they are just sheeple and it is up to you, the enlightened cultural libertarian to finally do something about it. But how do you get that town to change if they are all caught up in society’s mores, what is the cultural libertarian to do to help people who can’t possibly decide themselves what’s good for them?

    You need an instrument that decides for them, that helps them and elevates them past these pathologies. In practice, this means you might run to the state government to initiate this process, if they don’t care, you go to the federal government, if they don’t care, well there’s the UN. Right?

    In my mind libertarians tend to get along better in general with small government conservatives because libertarianism strikes me as the essential “leave me alone” philosophy, every man, every group of men shapes their own lives the way they want to without an authority of outsiders telling them how to live and what to do, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. Conservatives tend to believe the same, as long as that lifestyle fits into their ideas of social agreement as driven by tradition and common sense. In principle there is conflict here, in practice not all that much though as many libertarians adhere to very similar ideas as the conservatives.

    Howley is the odd (wo)man out in that arrangement though, she is already too invested in viewing “liberty” as this abstraction as defined by her that is to be imposed on people whether they like it or not and is frustrated by libertarians’ lack of world-changing progressive vigor. Maybe she is barking up the wrong tree?

  9. Susan says:

    I probably haven’t ingested a sufficient amount of coffee to be posting, but it’s always seemed to me that the differences boil down to this:

    Right-wing libertarianism: Do whatever you like, but remember to clean up the mess you make yourself and acknowledge and take responsibility for the consequences.

    Left-wing libertarianism: Do whatever you like, then declare yourself a victim, and make everyone else pay for it.

    I’m firmly in the “leave me alone and I’ll take care of myself” camp. It seems to me that the best argument on behalf of his or her beliefs a secular conservative/libertarian can make is a fiscal one.

  10. Ethan says:

    Quentin Skinner’s lecture on three concepts of Liberty, which is free
    on iTunesU, is helpful for this. This sounds like Howley, doesn’t it?

    “Mill thinks the yoke of opinion is heavier than the yoke of law, and the danger to freedom from civil society greater than from the state. Given strong civil norms, you might, by education especially, begin inauthentically to internalize those norms and choose what is customary in preference to what is your inclination.” (From the summary at

    Left-libertarians proceed logically enough: if non-state institutions are far more powerful than individuals and are collectively more coercive than the state, then using the power of the state to break them down might be the only way to increase individual freedom, that is, the scope within which a person may self-realize most fully.

    That’s not my definition of liberty and I can’t fathom how after the 20th century someone could still want to use the power of the state like that, but in intention it’s not illogical or evil or even victimological. Howley’s implied non-coercive state suasion is mild enough, though disturbing in implication. Most people are just not that persuadable (we’re not a smart, open, docile species), so the state will always be tempted to throw away the carrot and lay about with the stick.

  11. mike says:

    Thanks, Mike H, for expressing my feelings exactly. My affinity for libertarianism comes from its distinctly anti-interventionist nature in opposition to modern Leftism/Liberalism. That movement, despite its origins in personal freedom and autonomy, has morphed into a totalitarian cultural hegemony.

  12. kurt9 says:

    The problem of the social conservatives is that they want to politicize that which are personal matters. They want to infringe on people’s private matters. Thus, they are the ones creating a culture that is stifling of individual liberty. Usually this revolves around sexual matters, but not always. Many social conservatives seem hostile to radical life extension, which is completely unacceptable to me. This is existential for me, and by virtue of that, purely personal in nature. I resent their hostility towards healthy life extension even more than their trying to stick their noses into my bedroom.

    I do not consider my personal life choices to be a matter of public debate. Indeed, I consider such a notion to be highly offensive.

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