Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Society

19 Tough Questions for Libertarianism, part 2

So, for part two, we deal with questions 2-3. You can see the previous post here.

One of the things that enhances freedoms are roads. Infrastructure enhances freedom. A social safety net enhances freedom.

So obviously this is not a question, but a statement. But it gets to an important point, depending of course on how we define freedom.

Since we already dealt with the issues of liberty as a metaphysical concept, and because most of us use liberty and freedom fairly synonymously, I think we can discuss this statement with a practical concept of freedom, as opposed to the metaphysical concept.

So when we speak about “practical freedom” we mean legislatable freedom – freedom that can be codified – what we would normally refer to as “negative” and “positive” liberty: the freedom to do something and the freedom from something.

In my book, one of criticisms I have of libertarianism is that there is no reason for any sensible person to believe that much infrastructure or science would have ever come out of a libertarian society.Both of these things are social: Infrastructure requires society for the obvious reason that without society there is not only no need for infrastructure but no conception of infrastructure. (Why even imagine a wall if you don’t have property?)

But science is also social: though our myth of the genius denies this, scientists have always built on the discoveries of others. Science flourishes with freedom of information for a reason: scientists need other scientists to disprove or confirm their discoveries, and to make their discoveries possible in the first place.

So my question for libertarians was: what happens when the road-builder can’t build a road to your property, and you are surrounded by others’ property? How do you get off your property to acquire stuff you cannot grow / farm / mine or your property? With your helicopter? Would a helicopter exist in a world where few people communicate with few others because there is no infrastructure?

It’s ridiculous for anyone to assume that a ‘society’ that favoured extreme isolation, privacy, property rights, and the like, of the kind preferred by libertarians would ever produce roads, let alone helicopters. Why would a “road-builder” even become a reasonable choice of profession if there was nobody to pay the road-builder?

Why would there be no users of the road? Well, there wouldn’t be cars but there might be, say, horse-drawn vehicles. (Let’s say this for the sake of argument, though society also produced the wheel, not some lone visionary genius.) But if everyone owns the land that that they have inherited through their families and there is really no such thing as government land (or very little government land) then there are no roads, or there are only roads for those who are willing to pay – and who border on others willing to pay – for roads, provided all those willing to pay are also willing to let people travel on them, for a toll.

Is this not absurd? Look how far I have to go to try to explain how this could work, in theory. It’s ridiculous.

As is Molyneux’s response to this “question”: Molyneux says – I’m paraphrasing – “yes, I agree but we’re not talking about “freedom”, we’re talking about morality.” That’s just about the oddest thing for a libertarian to say, as libertarians care more about liberty / freedom than anything else. Obviously, libertarianism is moral to the libertarian, but then Christianity is moral to the Christian, Consequentialism is moral to the Consequentialist, and so forth. (And we can find immoral ideas or results in every moral theory, which is why there is no perfect morality.)

To say that something like a road is inherently bad – as Molyneux appears to be arguing in bizarre response to this statement – because it allows for rapists to travel down them – i.e. infrastructure allows for people to make bad decisions – is not to argue against roads, or infrastructure, or social safety nets.

You know what also allows for bad decisions? Paths through woods. Fear. Lack of regular human contact – because you have few neighbours, if one can be said to have neighbours in a libertarian utopia, and they all only care about you not contacting them. No scientific information to speak of because you have no society to propagate it. And so on and so on.

People make bad decisions. Last time I checked – and that was very recently – human history is pretty much the history of error. If it were not, we wouldn’t be destroying the planet we live on, we wouldn’t have records of numerous societies that have destroyed themselves, we wouldn’t experience Hanlon’s Law on a daily basis, etc.

Human beings are not moral creatures, we are animals. We are extraordinarily clever animals who have invented moralities and imposed them on ourselves. Unfortunately, because we are animals we are left with this problem: we can imagine perfection but we cannot live up to it. So regardless of the moral code, regardless of the breadth of our imagination, we will do things that we and others do not approve of. And, whether we do them intentionally or not – Hanlon and I would say we don’t really do them intentionally most of the time – many of us will experience negative consequences of our good and bad choices.

We can abdicate any responsibility for this. We can blame the rest of the world – or in the case of libertarians and anarchists, we can blame “the state” – or we can work – as individuals or as a society – to try to do a little here and there to mitigate our compound errors. Claiming that something as basic to modern society as the road enables bad choices is about as silly as it gets. I don’t really see the argument.

I see the false analogy – that’s two to date in Molyneux’s response, at the very least – between roads and welfare, but you can actually have an argument about whether or not welfare enables bad choices – that is the subject of a another conversation – but whether roads, electricity, and good quality water enable bad choices isn’t really up for debate, unless you think that humans shouldn’t really be allowed to do anything except for sit on their own piece of land. (How they get that land in the first place is another question.) And how un-libertarian to insist that people should just stay home. I thought this was about freedom.

If you want to make the claim that all infrastructure enables people to make bad choices then you are a social darwinist – not a necessarily a libertarian – and not anyone that I have any interest in speaking with ever. For someone to claim that they are moral, but claim that they believe that people should die like other animals, is to certainly claim a particular morality, but this morality is foreign to the vast majority of human moral traditions, and does not represent what is good about humanity; it represents what is bad about humanity. It is extremism like this that exacerbates the problems we inevitably experience through human error.

So if you are a libertarian and you really feel this way – and I do not believe that all libertarians are social darwinists necessarily – why aren’t you living in a cabin in the woods? Why are you using the products of a society – such as Youtube – when you clearly do not believe in society?

Unless of course your really do believe in society, but you like to pretend that you don’t, because your rhetoric gets you money and notoriety, and allowed you to quit your job as an IT consultant…

What should we do with the losers that are picked by the free market?

Question 3 deals with the consequences of unfettered capitalism. But first, we have to do some myth-busting.

Capitalism, like government, is a historical contingency. It emerged in a particular time and place and as the result of numerous different factors and we should understand that this, by itself, does not actually make it good… or bad. Libertarians, neo-liberals, neo-cons, “classical liberals” and even some of their critics would do well to understand this historical fact.

Some pretty smart people tried to explain what was happening but they were hindered by their context: it was new and they hadn’t had time to see its results, and things like psychology and statistics weren’t really all that reliable back then. (That’s a joke, that is.) But I still think people like Adam Smith did a pretty good job, given the limitations. (If you are one of these people who likes to trot out Adam Smith as a defender of a completely free market, I suggest you go back and read all of The Wealth of Nations rather than just the parts you agree with.)

As human beings, we have a choice: we can evaluate this historical contingency that is capitalism, and decide what about it is good, what about it is bad, and what about it doesn’t fit those categories that we ourselves invented, or we can pretend that it is something other than historical contingency and claim that it is “good” or it is “evil.” I would suggest this latter approach is not only unhelpful but, in the extreme, dangerous.

I for one like many things about capitalism and dislike many things about capitalism. To pick but two:

I love that I can acquire all sorts of music and listen to it in my own home (and many other places) whenever I want. A different economic system would not provide me with this and this is historical fact. (No other economic system produced the LP and the CD.)

On the other hand, I would love to see a limit in retail hours because I think that shopping-as-therapy, impulse-buying, spending money you don’t have, and a host of related activities, are somewhat damaging to human beings – on a psychological and mental level – and society on an economic level.

But those are just two personal beliefs.

As a society, we obviously disagree about what’s good and bad about capitalism. But most of us agree that capitalism isn’t perfect. However, most libertarians don’t share this view. And this is one of the areas where libertarianism comes to resemble so many other ideologies – actually, 99% of ideologies if not all of them – as secularized religion: in its deification of and absolute faith in “the invisible hand.”

The wholly free market has actually never existed, which is something that few supporters of deregulation will admit. Even in its supposed heyday, in industrializing Britain and in the “Robber Baron”-era of the United States, governments regulated their markets, actually quite intrusively in some cases. Look at at Britain in the late 18th century, or focus on any US state in the 19th century and you will see laws that regulate economic activity, yes you will. A free market of the kind conceived in theory by libertarianism and neo-liberalism is not possible in the real world. (Government being our collective inheritance as discussed last time.) So we have to talk about the free market in a relative sense, in degrees.

And even if it were a possibility to have no government regulation of the economy – which implies no government at all as even a “protective agency” of the kind Nozick accepts would actually entail some slight regulation of the economy – the invisible hand is a myth. Smith coined it as a metaphor; he wasn’t describing something that actually happens, he was trying to explain something he saw but didn’t have to the tools available to us, and so said he said that capitalism operates as if it were being guided. (And we should remember that just because Smith or any other human said it, doesn’t mean it is absolutely true). It’s easy to see how a Christian would believe that. Many Christians insist to this day that things as obviously imperfect as the human body are evidence of divine creation. The “invisible hand” is no different.

So even before we try to solve what to do with those “losers” in the free market, we see that there really isn’t such a thing as an absolutely free market; the “losers” who do result from less regulated capitalism are the losers of a regulated market. And there are more of them, at least from an economic perspective, in a less-regulated market than in a more-regulated market. And it just so happens that the winners in a less-regulated market win far greater than in the more-regulated market, which tends to annoy the losers.

(As an aside: as a critic of nationalizing entire economies, I am fully aware that though the economic consequences may indeed be lessened by regulation, sometimes the consequences of such regulation are far, far worse than “losing” in the market.)

So the question actually is the capitalist system something that we prefer to other economic systems? If we answer yes – and the libertarians do and so do I – then one of the fundamental questions following from such an affirmative answer is “what do we do with the losers of the market?”

When libertarians answer this question – Molyneux doesn’t really answer it in his response video – their answer usually evokes criticisms of “social darwinism.” As a former libertarian, I would like to say that I strongly believe most libertarians are not social darwinists and even the celebrity libertarians only pretend to be because it sells. Most of these people are so caught up in the theoretical elegance of libertarianism – given certain untenable assumptions – that they don’t think through the consequences of a perfectly free market, if it were indeed possible.

Molyneux makes some bizarre pseudo-answer in his video, where he talks about foreign aid and charity in some kind of future America (presumably a libertarian one) where these things would still continue. Certainly nothing in libertarianism presupposes foreign aid and I know of no historical examples where charity has actually adequately taken care of the people who, as Molyneux notes, are incapable of properly participating in the market. (Feel free to point out one for me.)

The other half of his “answer” revolves around choice and responsibility; two other things libertarians deify with the invisible hand. Libertarians and anarchists assume choices are free, usually because of some assumption about free will, a Christian concept that has been pretty much destroyed by scientific discoveries over the last century or so.

That’s not to say human beings don’t choose, as we obviously do choose things, but our choices are contextual; they are framed by the context they are made in, and they are influenced by more things than I could possibly enumerate in a blog post. Our choices appear free to us – at least much of the time – but we are rarely if ever fully aware of the circumstances that put us in the situation in which we make a choice and we are rarely if ever fully aware of every factor that influencing our state of mind at the time.

So to claim that human beings must be responsible for things that they have only a slight degree of control over and that to not be wholly responsible for the consequences of these conditioned choices is somehow a moral failing, is to completely misunderstand the human condition at a very base level. As I mentioned previously, this is religion masquerading as ideology. (Sure, we can all, to an extent, choose how we react to some things, provided we are not angry or in the fits of some other powerful emotion, but the options we consider are limited by our surroundings and our past, among over things.)

As a child, I was very big on this concept of “responsibility.” As a teen, I strongly believed that anyone who abdicated their personal responsibility should be punished for that – not just by the free market but by society as a whole. As an anarchist, I seemed to reverse my political opinions entirely, but this idea of personal responsibility was still at its core; I just now thought that life (and you could substitute the “free market” here if you like) would do a better – juster, perhaps – job of punishing those who failed to make right choices.

At some point I learned that there aren’t really “right” choices, at least in any abstract sense. And so to favour ideologies which revel in seeing those who make “wrong” choices suffer in some way or other – through their own account or through society’s – really didn’t seem particularly nice. I learned this through books – through existentialism, through psychology, through post-modernism, through literature – and I learned it through everyday human experience. And I came to understand that, for me to live in this world, I had to take a more compassionate view: I judge myself harder than I judge others.

Literature and history both teach us that most people – save sociopaths – want to feel good about their lives when they die. Some of us are able to live relatively regret free from an early age. I came to this in my mid-late 20s.

But one of the problems with humanity, and one reason why we unfortunately have to resort to argument to combat non-compassionate ideologies, is because most people do not have these realizations – and most people do have these realizations as much as a libertarian or neo-con may want to claim otherwise – until they are retired or even on their death bed. And up until that time, they take a hard line with others, pretending their personal successes were completely the result of their own “free” choices, and believing that those who haven’t had their luck are somehow entirely morally culpable for their own “free” choices. (Aside: this is not to deny that we need to punish crime, but that is another issue.)

And so, those of us who have come to this realization early – lucked into it, as it were – are then forced to construct elaborate arguments calling upon everyone from the Greeks (“man is a social animal”) to present scholars to try to convince these people – who fail to understand the frailty of human existence – that there is inherent value – both for ourselves and others – in looking after others, those “losers” of the “free” market.

And that this value is pretty much constant throughout history. Not only does it improve society in numerous ways – infrastructure allows for greater human interaction which allows for sharing of experiences and trade and numerous other things, education improves society as a whole and all in it, food prevents famine and numerous other things, money allows people to make different and sometimes better choices, health care eradicates traditional diseases and illnesses, etc – but it also allows us to live with ourselves. Which all of us – save sociopaths – at some point have to reckon with.

We can’t hide from ourselves. And advocating an ideology that will leave human suffering on your conscience – and though I don’t believe in a soul, I do believe in a conscience as part of evolution – only delays this reckoning and makes everything worse for you and everyone else.

So to finally answer the question: if we say “yes” to capitalism, what do we do with the losers of the market? We help them as much as we can without endangering ourselves, and we do this for them and for ourselves.


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