The Latest Anti-libertarian Argument
Someone has finally found the true weakness of libertarianism. Libertarianism cannot possibly work because it is “strange.” [insert eye roll indicating sarcasm here] Yes, boys and girls, prepare yourselves. It is time for another post about why an anti-libertarian argument is wrong. Hey, this is my blog, and I write about what I want to write about.
So there I was, checking reason.com’s Hit and Run blog, and there was a post from Brian Doherty about an opinion piece by Claude S. Fischer, Professor of Sociology at the University of California. That Fischer is a professor at a university indicates to me that he should be smart enough to know better than to make the arguments he makes. I was a bit surprised at the silliness of his arguments.
I suppose it is a little rude of me to call his arguments silly. His column was obviously intended to be a very serious critique of libertarianism. But he undermines his arguments from the very beginning. The opinion piece is headlined as “Libertarianism Is Very Strange.” That basically sums up his argument, though the implications of his argument are a bit darker than the silly headline might indicate.
Clifford Geertz pointed out that “the Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique . . . center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action . . . is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.” For most of history, including Philadelphia, 1776, more humans were effectively property than free. Children, youth, women, slaves, and servants belonged to patriarchs; many patriarchs were themselves serfs to chiefs and lords. And selling oneself into slavery was routine for the poor in many societies. Most world cultures have treated the individual as a limb of the household, lineage, or tribe. We moderns abhor the idea of punishing the brother or child of a wrongdoer, but in many cultures collective punishment makes perfect sense, for each person is just part of the whole.
What difference does this history and anthropology make to libertarian arguments about the good life? Plenty. If libertarians would move real-world policy in their direction, then their premises about humans and human society should be at least remotely plausible; we are not playing SimCity here. Instead, libertarian premises arise from a worldview that was strange at its origin and is strange now, after the global triumph of liberalism.
Apparently, libertarianism is strange and implausible because slavery and tribalism existed for a long time. In other words, Fischer is arguing that libertarianism will not work because that is just not the way things are done. And anti-libertarian arguments just don’t get much sillier than that.
Here are a few things that have not been the way things are done: abolition of slavery, democracy, feminism. Obviously, they cannot work because they are ideas that are too strange to work in the light of history and anthropology.
Speaking of slavery:
If libertarian positions cannot be justified by reasoning from history or anthropology, they might be justified by practicality: “That government which governs best governs least . . . . [indeed,] that government is best which governs not at all,” Thoreau claimed in a characteristically solipsistic declaration. (Not paying taxes was Thoreau’s way of remaining unstained by connection to slavery, yet it took big government to end slavery.)
There is nothing in Fischer’s column to indicate that he sees the irony of his comment about the end of slavery. The only reason that “it took big government to end slavery” was because the one thing propping up slavery was the government. Giving credit to government for ending slavery is sort of like saying you have saved someone’s life by no longer holding their head underwater.
At this point in the column, I was wondering if Fischer had forgotten just what he is supposed to be arguing against.
Eventually he gets around to saying this:
The American western frontier illustrates what libertarians might consider the minimal, “night watchman” state. Yet that watchman was often outgunned by desperadoes and vigilantes. The high homicide rates there and in the frontier-like quarters of 19th century American cities came down largely because a bigger state—policing—stood up. American history testifies against the libertarian thesis.
So homicide rates fell because eventually there was legal protection for people’s rights. No, that is actually not a good argument against libertarianism. The libertarian thesis fundamentally includes the protection of people’s rights. So, no, American history does not testify against the libertarian thesis. If anything, it provides very obvious support.
And at this point in the column, I had arrived at the conclusion that Fischer is simply ignorant of what libertarianism is. Apparently, like so many who write against libertarianism, he seems to have formed his opinion of it not by doing research but by overhearing “clever” remarks about it at a cocktail party.
He also seems to have the opinion that because libertarians want smaller government they necessarily are opposed to any and all government action. So in retort, I will quote from a classical liberal (i.e. someone who was liberal before liberalism became support of strong centralized government), Frédéric Bastiat:
Life, faculties, production — in other words, individuality, liberty, property — this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.
What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.
Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.
Now maybe that sort of thinking is strange in a world where history speaks of all the ways human beings have tried to control other human beings against their will, but that strangeness is hardly an argument against the ideas of liberty and protecting individual rights. And if libertarians are strange for thinking human beings ought to be free from the oppression of others, then I am proud to be so strange as that.
And when government did things like end slavery or pass civil rights laws or give women the privilege of voting, it did not do so as a benevolent god establishing a fair society. It did so only after it had first been used, by individuals, for things like propping up slavery, passing and enforcing Jim Crow laws, and preventing women from having the privilege of voting. In other words, big government was finally stepping back from ways it had already trespassed on human liberty.
And even now, as we libertarians argue against intrusive government, we argue not against government protecting people, but against government using its power to trespass on human liberty. Just because government can do something does not mean that something should be automatically assumed to be the public good. And just as liberty for slaves and minorities and women is good for society, so is protecting human rights for everyone.
Indeed, we are not playing SimCity. But that sort of attitude of control over the lives of other people is exactly what Fischer (and most other “big government is good for you” folks) seems to be advocating. And this is where the darker implications of his argument come into play.
To be fair, Fischer did say this:
Both historical and contemporary research suggests that Thoreau was wrong; the government that governs least does not govern best, whether the criterion is promoting the general welfare or promoting individual liberty. This does not mean that the converse is true, that maximal government is best. There appears to be a reasonable balancing point. We Americans seem to be below that reasonable point, and libertarianism threatens to drive us further down.
So he is not against maximal government, whatever that means. But clearly in the balance between government authority and individual liberty, he seems to think we should err towards the side of government authority. After all, government ended slavery. But even after that, government also had laws against interracial marriage. And government was responsible for Jim Crow laws. And government decided it had authority to determine who was fit and unfit for breeding, and to give people syphilis. And right now, the government is trying to claim it has authority to tell people they must buy health insurance or else.
So, no, libertarianism is not threatening to drive us down, but to help us climb back up. If we Americans are below a balance point that is just the right amount of liberty and government, in no way could we be said to be there because government is too small. Government has grown at ever faster rates over the past several decades. To ignore this because libertarianism is “strange” in the annals of human history is to cling to a foolish and arbitrary standard of “that is not the way we do things around here.” Which is exactly the attitude that led to things like the Jim Crow laws and such that Fischer wants to proudly point to as things government stopped doing.
So I will stand on the side of liberty and feel not strange but proud.
Good golly, this post is already over 1700 words. Okay, I will stop. I just get a little bit worked up when people suggest that supporting liberty is unreasonable.