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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