Around October 2011, Jon Stewart interviewed Andrew Napolitano, a prominent US “libertarian” on The Daily Show.
At some point, some libertarians put Stewart’s interview questions into a meme sometimes called “Jon Stewart’s 19 tough questions for libertarians.” My understanding of this is that Napolitano did not acquit himself well enough in their eyes. This doesn’t exactly surprise me, as Stewart is fairly well prepared for people he does not see eye to eye with, and I think a lot of his interviewees – having apparently never watched The Daily Show – come somewhat unprepared for actual questions. They think they are on Leno or something and… oops.
Anyway, here are the questions as outlined on reddit. Not all of them are questions, but rather statements that libertarians would be expected to counter.
- Is government the antithesis of liberty?
- One of the things that enhances freedoms are roads. Infrastructure enhances freedom. A social safety net enhances freedom.
- What should we do with the losers that are picked by the free market?
- Do we live in a society or don’t we? Are we a collective? Everybody’s success is predicated on the hard work of all of us; nobody gets there on their own. Why should it be that the people who lose are hung out to dry? For a group that doesn’t believe in evolution, it’s awfully Darwinian.
- In a representative democracy, we are the government. We have work to do, and we have a business to run, and we have children to raise.. We elect you as our representatives to look after our interests within a democratic system.
- Is government inherently evil?
- Sometimes to protect the greater liberty you have to do things like form an army, or gather a group together to build a wall or levy.
- As soon as you’ve built an army, you’ve now said government isn’t always inherently evil because we need it to help us sometimes, so now.. it’s that old joke: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars? How about a dollar? -Who do you think I am?- We already decided who you are, now we’re just negotiating.
- You say: government which governs least governments best. But that were the Articles of Confederation. We tried that for 8 years, it didn’t work, and went to the Constitution.
- You give money to the IRS because you think they’re gonna hire a bunch of people, that if your house catches on fire, will come there with water.
- Why is it that libertarians trust a corporation, in certain matters, more than they trust representatives that are accountable to voters? The idea that I would give up my liberty to an insurance company, as opposed to my representative, seems insane.
- Why is it that with competition, we have such difficulty with our health care system? ..and there arechoices within the educational system.
- Would you go back to 1890?
- If we didn’t have government, we’d all be in hovercrafts, and nobody would have cancer, and broccoli would be ice-cream?
- Unregulated markets have been tried. The 80’s and the 90’s were the robber baron age. These regulations didn’t come out of an interest in restricting liberty. What they did is came out of an interest in helping those that had been victimized by a system that they couldn’t fight back against.
- Why do you think workers that worked in the mines unionized?
- Without the government there are no labor unions, because they would be smashed by Pinkerton agencies or people hired, or even sometimes the government.
- Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South, or would the free market have done away with miscegenation, if it had been allowed to? Would Marten [sic] Luther King have been less effective than the free market? Those laws sprung up out of a majority sense of, in that time, that blacks should not.. The free market there would not have supported integrated lunch counters.
- Government is necessary but must be held accountable for its decisions.
And these questions have produced a Youtube video response (likely many more than one), but this is the one that introduced this meme to me.
As a recovering libertarian (7 years sober!), I feel like I can add to this discussion in a serious, rigorous way, without resorting to rhetoric that is so prominent in these debates down south. Hopefully, I can be fair.
My life as a libertarian
I was a libertarian – or someone with views similar to those of most libertarians but who didn’t necessarily identify as a libertarian – for about 3-4 years in my early twenties. Interestingly, this corresponded with most of my university education. For me, libertarianism was actually a step towards practicality as I was an anarchist – of the right-wing variety, for those of you who know what that means – in my first year of university.
University is an important time for many of us, when we encounter new ideas and new perspectives and learn how to get along with other adults. I was basically a fascist in high school and I was apparently looking for something new.
So, when I was exposed to the theoretically elegant idea of perfect freedom, I jumped at something so opposed to my former beliefs. (I did this as part of reinventing myself to escape high school and my bad memories of it.)
After about a year, I became aware of certain practical issues surrounding “pure” anarchism and I modified my beliefs to allow for some kind of state / government. At some point around this time, I discovered Robert Nozick and fell under the spell of Anarchy, the State and Utopia – still one of the most entertaining works of political theory I have ever read – which gave weight to my objections to anarchism and gave me a theoretical basis to maintain my libertarian views, even if I didn’t yet refer to myself as a libertarian.
A couple years later, having read Nozick’s book multiple times, and having become exposed to other ideas – particularly existentialism and certain basic concepts in psychology – I came to the reluctant conclusion that libertarianism was as untenable as anarchism. I began to refer to myself either as a “recovering libertarian” or as a “libertarian social democrat with a conservative streak”.
That latter appellation needs some explaining.
One of the things I discovered through both intensive reading of political theory and psychology (not to mention literature) but also the real life experience with other, less educated people, that I lacked in university that it is only ideologies that are “anarchist” or “libertarian.” Actual people don’t fit these molds, even when they label themselves as such. Only the most diehard adherents of an ideology hold most of that ideology’s convictions, and those people should be avoided at all costs, as they aren’t very nice to be around.
I noticed that I still had libertarian views – of the civil libertarian variety only – but that I lacked the dispassion to ignore the consequences of unfettered capitalism (hence both the social democrat side and the conservative streak).
For a better explanation of the kind of cross-ideological views I hold – and I believe most people hold to some extent or other – please check out “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist: a Credo.” (Please note, that I don’t mean to say most people are Conservative-Liberal-Socialists in the sense that I am or Kolakowski was, but rather that most people hold views form all three major branches of ideology, whether they will admit to it or not.)
So now that you have the personal background about my libertarian past – my apology as it were – let’s get down to business.
Is government the antithesis of liberty?
An anarchist would certainly answer yes. Libertarians traditionally acknowledge the need for some small amount of government but grant it begrudgingly and certainly imply that it is the antithesis of liberty.
When I originally began to write this I planned to include each response from Stefan Molyneux (in the video above) and respond to both Stewart’s question and Molyneux’s response, but Molyneux’s first response is so ridiculous it’s tough to dignify.
Before responding to Molyneux’s rhetoric: a serious attempt to answer this question would ask “what is liberty?” and “what is government?” Now, that might seem overly philosophical to some, but it’s important. People in different cultures define liberty in different ways. And we throw the word “government” around like an epithet without really understanding what we are talking about (at least many of us do).
The Weberian definition of government, the most famous one, is that government is the institution that monopolizes the use of violence in a particular area. But that is just an explanatory definition – though it is correct – and not a normative one. It doesn’t answer the question “why government?” which is certainly implied by any objection to government action.
To answer that second question, and therefore to get into the heart of the problem with this first question, we have Michel’s poorly named “Iron Law of Oligarchy”: whoever says organization says oligarchy. That is, when human beings create organizations, they create hierarchy and ruling classes.
Why would human beings create organizations in the first place?
Human beings are social animals and, beyond very, very small groups, need to coordinate their activities to prevent various ills and to create various goods. But beyond questioning the why of it, just look at history: societies from the agricultural revolution on are organized. Even those that at first appear unorganized – at least to those of us who experience mass organization – are in fact organized; otherwise they wouldn’t be societies. And they have hierarchy, no matter what we want to believe. I am aware of no anthropological or biological evidence that proves the popular leftist claim that human beings are socially or politically equal even in the so-called “state of nature” (which, of course, never existed).
So organization is a fact of human existence. And so is oligarchy. And at some point one organization will be at the top of the hierarchy in a given area and then it will monopolize the use of force in that area and it will be government. And that’s roughly what happened in human history, independently, in various parts of the world.
So that’s what government is: historical contingency. Nothing more.
Liberty is something totally different: an ideal. It is ideal that means something different to virtually every person on the planet, just like justice, equality, and other similarly metaphysical ideas.
So to respond to Stewart’s question: No, government cannot be the antithesis of liberty because they are completely different things. And Molyneux has it backwards: it is not government that doesn’t exist, but it is liberty, as an absolute thing, that does not exist. Absolute freedom or liberty is a metaphysical belief and nothing more. (Or, to put it another way, it is the ability to play god, which is, of course, impossible.) Government does exist, in the sense that all human institutions exist. Liberty can only be practically conceived of as a relative thing – whether we call it “freedom from” or “freedom to,” these things must be in a specific context and are therefore relative.
And so liberty, as a metaphysical idea, can also not be opposed to force, except as force is conceived as a metaphysical idea. But physical force is a real and tangible thing and people experience degrees of force – depending on how you want to define it, i.e. if coercion is force? – which may or may not affect their personal liberty.
Again, depending on how liberty is defined: if liberty is defined in a relative manner and not as a metaphysical ideal, then force does indeed affect liberty. It’s elegant in theory, to say force is the antithesis of liberty, but there is no world free of the use of some kind of force – whether it be natural forces, physical violence, psychological manipulation, etc – and so in the most abstract sense, as I have already implied, there is no liberty. (To put it another way, there is no absolute liberty.) So again this juxtaposition becomes tenuous.
And Molyneux’s rhetoric only makes the whole thing more absurd. Sure, one can claim government as a specific type of force, if one is willing to write a very broad definition of force as a metaphysical concept (which includes coercion, tacit acceptance, and the like).
But to then equate the compulsion of government to, say, wear a seat belt, stop at a stop sign, or pay a tax, with the act of one human being raping another human being is to completely misunderstand the natures of liberty – something that is a metaphysical idea until actual people interact with actual other people – and force – something that is, at bottom, a physical reality: you are not flying off into space as you read this.
And that there are different types of force, one of which is physical violence, and, within that broad category of violence, there are far different types of violence. (I was once punched in ear and I would never, ever argue that getting punched in the ear had the same impact on my life – morally, mentally, physically, or otherwise – as getting raped would have. If these two things are categorically different – and they are – then being forced to wear a seat belt by law is clearly far, far different than being raped or being punched in the ear.)
This is actually a familiar libertarian argument but it is usually phrased – no less absurdly – as “taxes are akin to slavery.”
The problem with “taxes are akin to slavery” is simple to the non-libertarian: “No, they are not. Moreover, to suggest they are proves that the libertarian has no experience of slavery or any conception of it.”
Nothing about paying taxes is on the same level – morally, mentally, physically or otherwise – with slavery, especially with race-based slavery. This is obvious and shouldn’t require an argument. It is a false analogy and that’s that.
Please watch the following video. Please note the definition of slavery at approximately 6:15.
I completely agree: slavery entails ownership of one person by another. This is not the same as anything else, even serfdom.
Certainly, paying a small portion of your income to an institution as a tax is much more like a mandatory tithe than anything else, including slavery. So you might fairly call taxes tithes in a derogatory fashion, but you cannot make the comparison to slavery. Similarly, you cannot equate the threat of potential physical force – and the constant compulsion to do certain things, pay taxes, stop at stop signs etc, entailed by that threat of physical force – to rape, or some other actual exertion of physical force.
So taxation is not slavery and the use of the threat of force by government – rather than the category of force-as-government, so conceived by Molyneux – is not rape, not is it assault, nor is it harassment (at least most of the time, for most people).
So, what do we think of this question “is government the antithesis of liberty?”
Well, it’s a bad question, at least from a theoretical perspective, as it equates two entirely different things as opposites. But it is useful when asked of libertarians, anarchists, and their like in the sense that it helps draw out the theoretical issues of their ideologies when at first glance it only seems like these ideologies are theoretically consistence but practically problematic.
And so, putting aside theoretical difficulties, the answer to this question becomes “No, government is not the antithesis of liberty”. Nor is force.
In the coming weeks I hope to address the remaining 18 “questions” of this internet meme, and hopefully with the thoroughness of this first question. Please stay tuned.