Libertarianism July 8, 2010

I generally keep this blog away from politics, but libertarianism seems to be all the rage these days. I’ve seen it show up on WitchVox, The Gods Are Bored, and Spells for Democracy, not to mention virtually every mainstream media outlet in existence. Much of it is controversy-driven, namely comments by Republican Senatorial candidate Rand Paul and Fox News personality John Stossel that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be repealed because it infringes on individuals’ rights to only do business with who they choose.

I commented on the posts on WitchVox and The Gods Are Bored. Here in my own space I want to go into a little more detail.

There is much that is attractive in libertarianism. Its emphasis on personal responsibility is admirable. Its call for smaller government at a time when public debt is reaching alarming proportions is at least worthy of consideration. And its call for ending the War on Drugs is just good common sense.

But as with any political philosophy, when decisions are made based on ideological purity rather than on their real effect on real people, real people end up suffering more real pain than they should.

Let’s use the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an example. Libertarians claim that racism is abhorrent and that they would never patronize a business who refused to sell to minorities. I’ll take them at their word, though I find their timing curious. But others would patronize such a business, some mindlessly and others gleefully. As someone who grew up in the South in the 60s and 70s, I can confidently say that without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights legislation of that era, our improving-but-still-far-from-equal society would look a lot more like 1960 than 2010.

Libertarians say as bad as racial discrimination is, government coercion is worse. They draw a clear line between laws that prohibit direct harm (such as laws against murder and robbery, which infringe on the freedom of the victim) and laws such as civil rights that mandate actions to prevent harm. I’m no libertarian theorist, but as I understand it, there are two main reasons behind this.

The first is the “slippery slope” argument: once the precedent of some government intrusion into private transactions is established, there’s nothing to stop full government control of all private transactions. I hear the same thing from opponents of marriage equality: if we let two men marry, what’s to stop three men from marrying or a man marrying a goat or some other absurdity – “where do we draw the line?” My standard response is “I don’t know where we draw the line but we shouldn’t draw it here.”

Very little in life is an all or nothing proposition, and consistency is overrated. I loved listening to Bill Parcells when he was coach of the Dallas Cowboys. One day a reporter asked him if the way he was treating a particular player was consistent with his treatment of other players. Parcells’ answer was “I’m not interested in being consistent – I’m interested in being right.”

The harm (if any) to the liberty of business owners caused by civil rights laws is far exceeded by the harm done to minorities in their absence. This is the moral argument against absolute libertarianism.

The second major libertarian argument is that of ownership. “Who owns you?” is a hook question asked by one libertarian recruiter. The correct libertarian answer is that you own you, and because you own you, you have the right to do whatever you please with whoever you please, so long as you don’t actively harm someone else (indirect harm doesn’t seem to count). And the implication is that if you don’t own you, then someone else does – if you’re not free to refuse to sell to blacks or gays or Pagans, then you’re not really free.

I argue that no one owns you – not even you. Humans and other living beings are creatures of inherent worth and dignity, part of the Divine, children of the Goddess and God. To allow anyone to be owned – even if it’s you owning you – reduces that person from a divine being of infinite value to a thing whose only value is its utility to someone with the surplus resources to purchase it.

You may legally own a dog, but you don’t have the right to beat or starve it – the dog has inherent value. You may own land, but you don’t have the right to pollute it – the land has inherent value. This is the religious argument against absolute libertarianism.

Libertarianism teaches classic American rugged individualism. This is a good thing – in small doses. Our species didn’t move from caves to skyscrapers because of rugged individuals. We advanced because we learned to cooperate. The paradox of civilization is that by acting against our evolutionary urges and putting the common good ahead of personal good, we gain more personal good (and goods) than we ever could on our own.

Humans are social animals, not lone wolves. Our laws and our social policies should reflect that reality.

It’s not hard to figure out the allure of libertarianism. Our economy is a mess and even those of us who are doing OK are nervous. Things got worse during eight years of Republican rule and it hasn’t gotten substantially better under the Democrats. Libertarians (many of whom operate in the Republican party) offer an alternative.

All political systems and philosophies must strike a balance between the rights of the individual, the rights of others, and the common good. Some libertarian ideas make sense and I’d like to see them implemented. But as for the absolute libertarianism advocated by Rand Paul and John Stossel, no thank you.

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  • …so much for marching to a different drummer.

  • You're knowledge of libertarianism is incomplete but being in agreement with your post "How Facts Backfire" I'll let you continue your studies unhindered by interruption from me.

  • Tim, please do interrupt. If I have facts wrong, I'd like to correct them. If I don't interpret the facts the same way as you, then that's another matter…

    As I said, there is much I like about libertarianism, but maximizing individual liberty is not the only goal of a political/economic system.

  • I can't speak for Tim, but our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable; not maximizable.

    They're given by creation, not given by you John; or anyone else.

  • Inalienable, yes. Unlimited, no.

    We have obligations to each other and to our society as a whole. With the privilege of engaging in commerce comes the obligation to treat all customers fairly and decently. With the privilege of owning land comes the obligation to not trash it or to turn it into a nuisance to your neighbors. With the privilege of living in an advanced society comes the obligation to contribute the maintenance of its infrastructure. And so on.

    We can debate the extent of these obligations and the most effective ways to fulfill them, but they do exist. And that's what the "absolute libertarians" (as opposed to the folks who just want a little – or a lot – less government) have wrong.

  • Our inalienable rights god given per the declaration of independence. The constitution defines our Bill of Rights. Where are you finding our obligations and who is defining them for us Tim… and by what right do "they" define them for others?

    You're obligated to tell us who dictates those obligations.

  • Our obligations evolve through convention and consensus (would you eat at a sit-down restaurant without leaving a tip?) and through the democratic process. Again, we can and should debate these obligations, but they do exist.

  • Sure, if the service bad…

    Who is the "our" here John? And once these unknown folks decide everyone's obligations, who enforces?

    Your pretty fuzzy here. The one things Libertarians get right is the costs is giving up some liberty for the sake of having a Gov Agency enforce some "obligation" for the "common good" often not worth while. The enforces have bad habits of turning the rules to their own benefit instead.

  • Bill, you're right that power brings the temptation for misuse and corruption. That's a clear call for transparency, accountability, and regular elections.

    As I've said before, I agree with some libertarian ideas and I strongly support subjecting the definition and limits of our common obligations to the democratic process.

    What I'm not OK with is saying we can't use the power of government to prevent some hateful people from harming others through public discrimination. You don't have the right to refuse to do business with someone because you don't like their race, religion, or orientation. That may be an infringement on some concept of absolute liberty, but the harm it causes is far less than the harm of allowing discrimination.

    Thanks for the conversation. I've said all I have to say on the subject – you can have the last word.

  • I strongly support subjecting the definition and limits of our common obligations to the democratic process.

    Do United States citizens have an obligation to report criminials? People violating US immigration laws? Should I call ICE on a factory I think hires illegals?

    UUs can blow one way or the other on the common obligations of our citzenship.

    Unless, like the Hebrew National Hot Dogs, you're answering to a higher calling on some of these obligations.

    Common Obligations and who defines and enforces them, just an idea I'm wary off, and a notion I would check any strong feelings about with some reflection.

  • Each of us discriminates daily and no government mandate will eliminate those decisions that you deem wrong.