Why I am not fundamentally a libertarian

I agree with libertarians on many specific issues. But on a deep level I no longer am in sympathy with libertarianism. Why? The issue can be encapsulated by a conversation with a friend recently. He posited that so long as his own actions don’t impact others then he should have liberty to engage in his actions (e.g., smoking, drinking, etc.). Practically there is a great deal of wisdom in this perspective. But I now believe that this individual focus misses the critical insight that humans are generally social beings, who gain meaning and purpose from being socially embedded. A philosophically liberal, in a broad sense, perspective which focuses on individual rights and utility extracted from a social context ignores this reality of human nature.

But in the period between 1800 and 2000 this viewpoint was operationally very useful, because so many of the public policy issues were addressed rather well by focusing upon the individual. Concerns of material want are preeminent in this case. Food, shelter, and clothing. Basic subsistence is rather easily addressed in a reductionistic moral framework. You can decompose average caloric units, and aggregate them and evaluate the distribution of consumption, treating all individuals as reasonable atomic units.

Now that we are in a post-materialist era in the developed world I believe that these easily reducible and atomized concerns are fading into the background. Though many of the basic “Culture War” issues like abortion or gay rights are framed in an individual rights context, I believe that more deeply they’re really about a collective vision of society. Individual liberty and tolerance quickly cedes ground to a collective moral vision. This is not a prescriptive model, this is for me a descriptive one.

The reality is that for a minority of humans a fundamentally liberal/libertarian moral framework is profoundly appealing. It makes intuitive sense to us. I say us because I’m one of those individuals. But I don’t think it describes most human beings. And we have to begin with the modal human being when generating an empirically informed rich moral framework. Don’t we?

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31 Responses to Why I am not fundamentally a libertarian

  1. Vince Mulhollon says:

    “And we have to begin with the modal human being when generating an empirically informed rich moral framework. Don’t we?”

    With all due respect sir, you are completely wrong, consider historical examples such as slavery, women as property, tyrannical forms of govt. Majority rule does not work in science, or apparently ethics and morality. A popular non-scientific non-rational morality and ethics are possible to create, yet horrible to live under.

  2. Tom X. Tobin says:

    I, too, tend to agree with many of the policy prescriptions put forth by libertarians. I used to consider *myself* a libertarian, but I’ve shied away from that label after realizing that the underpinnings of my political views have nothing in common with the “natural rights” deontology of most libertarians. I want to live in a particular sort of civilization, and my positions on various issues reflect that. I have no patience for appeals to “rights” that supposedly exist independently of a societal framework to enforce them. While sharply disagreeing with much of what passes for “social conservatism”, I do consider myself a conservative in the broad sense of Thomas Sowell’s “constrained vision” of human nature.

  3. Dwight E. Howell says:

    With the rapidly growing number of people on food stamps I have doubts about the phrase post-materialistic. If you aren’t rich this isn’t an option. After taking a look at the national debt this nation isn’t rich, we’re just spending like we are and that is going to end because we are going to run out of borrowed money and so is the EU.

    I believe this is going to be exceptionally hard on those who have never known want and don’t understand that being able to eat is a privilege rather than an inalienable right.

  4. David Hume says:

    With the rapidly growing number of people on food stamps I have doubts about the phrase post-materialistic. If you aren’t rich this isn’t an option.

    food stamp usage and poverty correlates with obesity (i’ve crunched the data myself). this is NOT the great depression.

    tom tobin, i share many of your broad sentiments. not a social conservative in the conventional sense, but am conservative in some very deep ways.

  5. Agreed. However, I’m unsure how this helps with any practical analysis. Say, you are arguing about whether to spend more on “infrastructure” or allow sales of kidneys, how does your framework add to these old debates?

  6. Dain says:

    You say you are personally libertarian (and conservative in a kind of deep sense). Surely most of the more socially conscious partisans that you speak of are personally in accord with the perspectives they advocate. So then why do you shy away from just being an outright libertarian in the prescriptive sense?

    I second the first commenter’s allusion to you yielding to the majority.

    If I were to throw my hands up and just pick a collective vision, I guess I’d choose the one that reflects the one adopted by the libertine progressive folks I generally hang out with, but I thought political philosophy was about something more than argumentum ad populum.

  7. David Hume says:

    You say you are personally libertarian

    i didn’t say that. don’t restate what i said, i said what i said, and i didn’t say i was personally libertarian. rest of comment ignored since you didn’t bother to read what i said clearly.

  8. Polichinello says:

    The reality is that for a minority of humans a fundamentally liberal/libertarian moral framework is profoundly appealing.

    Yeah, they’re the “childless immortals”, as one wag quipped.

  9. Bob_R says:

    What indication is there that the collectivist impulses in human nature go beyond the clan or the tribe? What indication is there that the human concept of clan can be expanded to 300 million people? While I think I know the answer, those questions are not intended to be wholly rhetorical. But my guess is that collectivist political philosophy on a scale larger than a small village is as much at odds with human nature as extreme individualism.

  10. I like Bob R.’s comment. Though we are social beings, we are not collectivist by nature. Libertarians believe that people seeking their own interests, will benefit society because exhange of service for another good, is what trade/exchange and value is determine upon. Society benefits by such “selfishness”. But, when society is corrupted by those that would use the system against itself, meaning that the government becomes an entity that is manipulated to protect special interests, or government officials, then we have come into a Socialist STate, which doesn’t care about the human person and their interests! The government becomes an entity itself that sucks the blood, ambition and ingenuity out of those in it own society!!! (Kind of like Dante’s image of Satan)….

  11. Oops. I guess I was misled by this at the end:

    “The reality is that for a minority of humans a fundamentally liberal/libertarian moral framework is profoundly appealing. It makes intuitive sense to us. I say us because I’m one of those individuals.”

  12. I’m having a hard time really following the thrust of what you’re saying here. The way I read it, you seem to be advocating some kind of re-formulation of libertarian political thought based on an analysis of people, not at the individual level, but at the “social” level. Can you explain more what you see as the primary implications of this reformulation, or how it might even work logically? Maybe just take one specific issue, like drug use … give a classical libertarian argument for allowing drug use, based on property rights (in ones own body) perhaps, and then explain how you might re-examine this on the higher social level, and what different conclusions you might draw?

  13. Jeeves says:

    I’m a smoker, but even if I think second-hand smoke jive is crap science, I still see no “wisdom” in your friend’s idea that smoking involves only his liberty. What about the liberty of those forced to share the cost of smokers’ health care?

    That said, the “the collectivist moral vision” isn’t for me. It may be “descriptive”…though the same can be said of tyranny. But maybe Polichinello’s right and I’m just a “childless immortal.” Well, childless, at any rate.

  14. At the end of the day, human beings are made to live in community. The flaw in libertarian thinking is to postulate that such community can exist on an entirely voluntary basis. Not even families are purely voluntary (kids don’t have a choice about living in a particular family, for example). As such, the libertarian vision is ultimately untenable — it is as contrary to the basic reality of the human condition as Soviet Communism was.

  15. “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” – James Madison, 4th President and Father of the Constitution

    If you agree that government formed “by and for the people” is true (it is the American myth), then, you will also agree that liberty of “the people” should be the focus of government.

    Government should not be in the ‘Power” business, but in limiting its power! Government is to serve the interests of the people in their pusuit of their own lives, and not be extra baggage, extraneously burdensome, and over-bearing.

    Government should protect its citizens, and its national interests, not just for the few, but for all citizens. We might disagree, but this is the right in a free society, therefore, government should not impose itself on the Press!

    That means that we (individuals or the nation) cannot be free from material interests, if we are to survive, and prosper.

  16. Mark,
    No children do not have a choice about who their families will be, but they do have a choice in whether those families will continue to affect and how they will affect their lives. Boundaries are necessary in emotional maturity.

    Those that do not have a choice, in our society, are those that do not have the means to choose, and such limitations could be self-imposed, self-inflicted, or a matter of circumstances.

    When the government attempts to meet everyone’s needs, there is a tendency for abuse of the system and/or enablement of individuals who have not learned boundaries. Government should not be training its citizens to be dependent.

  17. Eric says:

    I believe that most libertarians today believe that there should be some sort of overall social structure which governs how we act, and that without it chaos would ensue (look at what happened in New Orleans immediately after Katrina). However, you have to tread carefully, as the further you move from the core libertarian views, the closer you get to the core liberal philosophy where the government does everything, and every problem is solved with a tax.

    On a similar note, am I the only atheist who doesn’t get offended by people (yes, even the government) using the word “Christmas”? I have to agree with you to the extent that some libertarians get a little too wound up on what words or symbols are used in public speeches and displays. Yes, there are clear exceptions (such as racial slurs or swastikas, etc…) that just about everyone save those in prisons or mental institutions would take offense to. They seem to think that if Obama calls the big decorated tree in Washington a “Christmas tree” then it offends too many people. It’s just the name of a holiday and there is no need for anyone to get all up in arms over (or even think about!) it’s etymology. It is a Federal holiday and is observed throughout the country, so why call it just a mere “holiday,”…you do not have to be Christian to refer to this as what it is: Christmas. The word Christmas is already so embedded in public discourse that most people instead have to actually TRY to use the word “holiday.” I say, who gives a damn which word they use. This is why that, even as a hard-core atheist, I will have nothing to do with Atheist Aliance. They simply get all up in arms over things like this! Allowing something (such as mere symbolism) in a public sphere AND forcing people to believe in, enjoy or even take heed in some meaning in that symbolism are TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THINGS. If this makes me only a quasi-atheist (like vegetarians who eat fish) then so be it!

  18. John says:

    “am I the only atheist who doesn’t get offended by people (yes, even the government) using the word ‘Christmas'”

    No, not the only one. I’m an atheist, and I say “Christmas” because I don’t believe in changing history. The fact is that we celebrate the holiday at this time of year because that is the time of the celebration of Jesus’ birth. I love saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. It feels subversive now; like I’m sticking it to the PC crowd.

    Yeah, and I use BC and AD too. What the hell is the “common era”?

  19. RandyB says:

    A libertarian is someone who believes you have the absolute right to drive drunk, up to the point you kill a pedestrian.

    Whether it has to do with social beings, our ability to share public resources has enhanced our lives tremendously. I use more than my 1/300 millionth share of the Interstate Highway System, but much less than that of Food Stamps.

    So much of what government does is stuff that most of us would be willing to band to form a private organization for. I’d buy a share of the National Park System, in exchange for being allowed to use it. A libertarian would say it’s a big difference that you’re not forced to do so with guns; but I don’t think forcing people to pay to educate others’ children makes us totalitarians.

  20. Eric says:

    There are two distinct groups of libertarians, politically liberal libertarians and conservative libertarians. The latter (largely strict constitutional constructionists) have much less notoriety than the other. This may be why Ron Paul is lacking in the primary polls…the general public simply cannot imagine a conservative libertarian, therefore anyone claiming to be one both would understandably come across to the voters as being “wishy-washy” (though the common political pejorative “flip-flopper” may be more likely 🙂 ). So, when you say libertarians are most likely to support drunk driving on the grounds of personal liberties (despite considerable ducumented instances illustrating exactly how extremely dangerous it is to yourself and others on the road), to which of these two groups are you referring? Need I even ask?

  21. Bob_R says:

    I think it is unfortunate that so many libertarians define themselves in terms of a sort of “axiomatic” political philosophy. Probably the influence of Rand. Unfortunately, it’s so easy to find counterexamples to the libertarian “theorems.” (See above. For other examples, make up situations involving children (libertarian Kryptonite.)) The “purist libertarian” philosophy is most attractive to adolescents of all ages. I think Gillespie and Welch over at Reason do a good job of promoting “libertarian as an adjective rather than a noun.” We’ve gone so far as a nation into various kinds of collectivism that every policy change that I believe to be important is in a libertarian (adj.) direction. I guess this makes me “fundamentally a libertarian” even if I do think that a national currency and courts of law are a good idea.

    I guess what I am questioning is how broad a definition of “libertarian” is intended in the original post.

  22. Libertarians believe first and foremost in “self-rule”. The “problem” with libertarianism is not with it’s foundations of self-rule (self ownership), but with the maturity of our population in self-governance, isn’t it?

    Mature people don’t get drunk and drive. Those that want to limit another’s right to make that choice (for fear that that is not what the majority will choose), will seek to limit ALL choice, not just about driving while drunk (as this is already on the books), but about drinking itself!!!! The moral order will be defined by probabilities, therefore, limiting everyone to the “lowest common denominator! and will ultimately lead to further narrowing of choice.(Kind of like how we like education institutions to run, based on the “ideal” of equality….make sure that everyone is limited by the lowest common denominator, as we wouldn’t want to discriminate!)

  23. The problem with those in government, or otherwise, that resist libertarian thought, is the issue of power and controlling outcomes, because they have a vested interest. Either those in power must maintain their image, so they can control the vote and maintain their office….or it has economic implications to their inside information that builds their own portfolios,(or their friends) upon the backs of citizens!

    I don’t have anything against building a portfolio or appealing to “the vote”, but when it is done with dubious means, then it has to do with transparency in government and equal opportunity of everyone else!!!

  24. But, what if we extrapolate the issue of drunk driving to its ultimate “end” in regulating human behavior, as it is not beneficial to others to drive on roads where there MIGHT BE drunk drivers? Wouldn’t the end be that no one could drive but those that have proven their expertise in either getting the approved training, or in self-regulation of some other standard of “the experts”? Wouldn’t public transportation really be most “useful” to control the possibility or drunk driving?? Where would the auto industry be when public transportation is promoted by government “intervention” in limiting drunk driving????

  25. and who will end up paying for the public transportation for the “common person”? the common person….through taxes. This decreases expendable income for the individual “common person”, but ignores addressing those in government that determine the policies that drive public “good”…..will they pay the same for public transportation, or will they exempt themselves from the taxes to pay for it and give themselves special privledge to drive (even when drunk!!!)….

  26. Clark says:

    Angie, seems to me most of your comments fall prey to the slippery slope fallacy.

    “Those that want to limit another’s right to make that choice (for fear that that is not what the majority will choose), will seek to limit ALL choice…”

    It seems to me that is simply dubious reasoning. One can be a conservative and want to limit government without thinking as most libertarians do that all limits and all common goods are bad. While it’s true there have unfortunately been many big government conservatives it’s also true that most don’t seek to regulate everything. And conservatives can worry about regulatory capture by elites granting themselves special privileges without thinking it’s doomed to undermine all government action.

  27. Clark,
    Granted that government must provide regulations concerning behavior. This is what laws do, isn’t it?

    I was using hyperbole to make a point about transparency and accountability in government. As free societies must be transparent, or as transparent as possible. Transparency becomes harder as government grows larger, because it is more difficult to keep accountable (unless government grows even larger). Such large beauracracies fall prey to conflicts of interests, and sometimes can be places where the unscrupulous can be unaccountable in their pursuits on public funds….

    The individual is the lowest common denominator. Therefore, if it is “not good for the goose, then it is not good for the gander”. Equality is not about outcomes, but about the rule of law, meaning that NO ONE is above the law. This is what has made our country exceptional, because liberty is about equality before the law.

  28. CONSVLTVS says:

    Back to the original post: I once voted for Ron Paul for president. Called and considered myself a libertarian–I mean, Libertarian. The older I get the less satisfying that philosophy seems to me. It suffers from several failings, among which I count minimizing the collateral damage of hallmark private conduct and neglecting the concept of duty to the community. More, Libertarianism seems to be another example of a theory whose adherents think it will solve every problem. That’s an ivory tower mistake. It’s also a trademark of the Left. Conservatism is superior because it releases proven solutions only with reluctance. It naturally fosters incremental advances rather than hastily embracing untested novelties.

    On food stamps: I’ve travelled outside the US and Europe. I’ve been to Somalia. David Hume is right that there is no hunger problem in the US.

  29. If someone has the “concern” for the equality of others outside the U.S., don’t they have the freedom to “live that concern” in what they choose to do? Does that mean that everyone should be concerned with this issue, otherwise they are judged as not having a “moral conscience”, etc.?

    If we have civic duty, what does that mean? Does it mean that others can stipulate what another individual should be required to do within that community to develop “proper moral concern”? The principle of liberty does not mean that one does not have responsibilites or obligations, not at all. But, each individual will find they have different responsibilities/obligations, as well as interests. Therefore, liberty is not irresponsible, no, it just means that the definition of “moral” is different.

    Morality as defined by libertarians is a descriptive and not prescriptive. Rational people will live according to Constitutional principles, as then each person is valued equally. I won’t lie, cheat or steal because it wouldn’t be beneficial to me, if the tables were turned. This is about character, not law.

    But, even though we live in a Constitutional government where individuals are equal before the law, we will disagree as to what “should” be addressed and what makes for answers to the problems in our society and the world. Therefore, law is not viewed as a way to control another, but as a protection of one’s own right, as well as the other’s. Therefore, Being, itself, (the uniqueness of the person) is protected, so that it can not only develop, but grow and flourish.

  30. CONSVLTVS says:

    Angie VDM: “If we have civic duty, what does that mean? Does it mean that others can stipulate what another individual should be required to do within that community ”

    Yes. Obviously.

    “Morality as defined by libertarians is a descriptive and not prescriptive. ”

    If it’s not prescriptive, it’s not morality. It’s anthropology.

  31. Eric says:

    I have to disagree with anyone who tries to separate core conservative thinking from libertarianism. It’s those in far left who are most fervently opposed to libertarian belief (though an increasingly high number of social conservatives are too). Any politician who tries to make “wise” decisions for the public, often under the guise of nutrition for example, by imposing higher taxes and regulations is NOT by any means libertarian,…or conservative in most people’s book. People should be responsible for their own well-being when it comes to things which are most certainly MANAGEABLE–like what you choose to eat (however stretching this to include the regulation of drugs and drunk driving is just snide). If someone wants to eat nothing but fries, shakes and burgers for the rest of their life then that is their own business. Why make those who eat unhealthy foods only in moderation pay more just because a few others [possibly] over-indulge? “Libertarianism is at the heart of conservatism.” Who said that again…?

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