Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Religion

19 Tough; Questions for Libertarianism, Part 3

In this post we look at questions 4-9.

For the first part see here. For the second see here.

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.

To deal with the last part first, so we can get it out of the way:

I don’t know where Stewart got the idea that libertarians and the Christian right are one. I know there are definitely libertarians who are born-again Christian (“render unto Caesar…”) and there are no doubt born-again Christians who espouse certain libertarian views, but I think the vast majority of libertarians – certainly those who are serious, philosophical libertarians as opposed to those who are like “government get off my lawn!” – are not likely to hold millenarian Christian views. (At some base level the two are pretty opposed to each other, though on another level they are very similar.) So Stewart seems to misunderstand who he’s talking to, unless I have seriously misunderstood the current nature of US libertarianism. (Definitely possible.)

Molyneux’s response completely misunderstands the darwinian angle. He makes fun, claiming that business owners aren’t devoured when they fail. Sure, but that’s not what’s meant by “social darwininianism.” What’s meant is starvation, not someone eating someone else. Starvation is what kills most animals, as far as I know.

But I don’t think that invalidates the actual critique, which is basically a more forceful version of question 3, “what do we do with the losers of the market?” Here I am at complete agreement with Stewart, whereas I used to believe the complete opposite. Let me try to explain.

Human beings are animals on the planet earth. Earth is just one rock out of more than trillions in the universe. (There are billions of galaxies, remember.) I don’t want to get into theology, but basically the importance of this fact is simple: scientific knowledge of the universe tells us something: human beings aren’t special. We are only special to ourselves.

One major political implication of this fact is that human beings don’t actually have any innate or extra-human value. The value we do have is value that we ourselves have created. It is only human beings in society that can give each other value, rights, duties, etc. It is only in society that we can actually speak of things like morality, justice, freedom, equality and the like and then only in specific terms. These things, as metaphysical concepts, do not really mean anything.

Unfortunately, the western philosophical tradition strongly argues that Morality, Justice, Freedom, Equality and the like are actual things outside of human existence, which can be discovered purely through reason and logic. This is not only not true but also highly dangerous; every single modern revolution, and pretty much every single democide has been conducted in the name of Morality, Justice, Freedom, Equality or some other capitalized metaphysical concept. We are the only ones who can protect ourselves – as well as the only ones who can destroy ourselves, unless a meteor comes along – and we need to understand that the only way we can do this is through ourselves and our ideas and institutions.

We therefore have to decide what kind of society we want to live in. But we can’t do this on a blank-slate, like western political theory maintains. There is always history; it’s inescapable. The one thing the Khmer Rouge couldn’t get rid of in Cambodia was language: this language allowed people to remember the past, to remember a time when the Khmer Rouge didn’t exist; to aspire to something other than utopia; a past which was remembered as worth living in.

So ideologies – such as libertarianism – which begin from the idea that there is a “state of nature” / “human nature before society,” and we need to get back to that state of nature or that pure humanness, are all fundamentally flawed and, in their extremes, totally dangerous. (Though because libertarianism focuses on less organization it is inherently less dangerous than say communism, at least in theory).

We cannot create a Just Society, a Moral society, a Free society, an Equal society. But we can change the societies we live in, very slowly – if we want to avoid certain unpalatable consequences associated with revolution.

But to get back to the question: this is a collective thing. Human beings exist as human beings only in society and society should serve human beings as much as that is actually possible.

Libertarianism rejects certain aspects of human existence and tends to either suggest that society is not real, or that it doesn’t matter to individuals what happens to other individuals in society, both of which are not true in any way.

In choosing to attempt to change our society so that it is slightly better than the society we currently live in, we could certainly attempt to adopt libertarianism, though this would be beset by numerous practical issues – geographic space, the huge number of unemployed created by putting most arms of government out ob business, etc – but that would automatically entail things many of us do not find acceptable: starvation, death by illness / disease, etc because there is no government to look after those who – by birth, circumstances and / or choice – cannot survive in a society without a safety net. That’s not anywhere I want to live.

But beyond the moral objection many of us feel to this “darwinian” utopia of libertarianism there is also the simple issue of why libertarianism is not correct: human beings are not automatically endowed with the rights libertarians claim for them. They are only given these rights by society. Why should a given society purposefully choose to let some members of that society die in order to give others a feeling that they are somehow “Free”? Because of Morality? Because of Justice? Because of Freedom?

(As I have written before, I do not think most libertarians feel that it is darwinian, but I think that is because most libertarians do not understand the sheer amount of suffering that would follow from a “free market” if such a thing were actually possible.)

Morality, Justice and Freedom (as absolutes) are not real. There are only systems of morality, none of which humans have ever lived up to; systems of justice which have never been perfected (no society is free from crime); and there has never, ever been a “free” society, only societies that are more or less free – depending on how you define freedom (negatively, positively, some mixture of both?) – in relation to others.

No person is an island. We are all this together. Creating a fantasy world where that is not true – where human beings are autonomous / sovereign, rights-endowed, all financial transactions are completely voluntary and rational, etc – does not somehow then logically imply that we need to ignore our condition, or the other people stuck in it. We should not derive political theory from thought experiments; we need to work with what we have: human experience, human history, and whatever means we have at our disposal.

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.

I don’t really know what to do with this particular statement. I don’t exactly agree with the first sentence. We are not “the government” but some of us are part of it and we appoint the heads of it. It’s an oversimplification. I agree with the rest.

I think the challenge to libertarians implicit in this statement is “what kind of government would libertarianism entail?” Would it really be representative? If government only protects a given territory from external threats – though how they do that without taxes, as some less rigorous libertarians like to proclaim, is beyond me – why do you even need representative government?

But I don’t think that’s necessarily what Stewart was asking Napolitano. I think maybe he was asking, why would we vote for libertarian candidates who will just take things apart? And I can understand that sentiment as much as I have voted libertarian in the past as a protest. (I can do that in Canada.)

This is the problem with extracting questions from an interview and then arranging them as “19 tough questions!” At some point it stops making sense because of the lack of responses from the interviewee.

Is government inherently evil?

If the answer to this question – from any ideological perspective – is yes, than that ideology is inherently ridiculous. I have tried to explain this elsewhere in my posts on this meme and also in my book. Government is a fact of human society. If government is evil – if society is evil – we’ve got bigger problems than what amount of government interference in our lives we’ll tolerate. But this is actually an extreme religious perspective that has unfortunately found its way into most ideologies, which claim to be secular.

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.

Life is full of choices with unforeseen consequences, both positive and negative. When we plan for one thing and do it we get blow-back we could never have foreseen. To maintain our civil liberties – which keep us and government from destroying each other – sometimes we have to make concessions on those liberties. Those concessions should always be temporary, but they are sometimes necessary. With the exception of freedom of thought, not freedom can be absolute. We need to understand this as humans in society.

Libertarians usually do not admit this. Freedom is usually framed as some kind of absolute or very near-absolute entitlement, rather than something gained and lost over time.

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.

Again, we see the problem with this meme and any extraction from half an interview. This doesn’t make a lot of sense even in context. But anyway…

Some libertarians – certainly the ones I am familiar with – acknowledge the need for an army to defend the territory. I think Stewart is suggesting here that with a government purely devoted to external protection, other things will follow. And I couldn’t agree more. If a government like this was actually possible in this day in age – if somehow the apparatus of government could actually be taken apart almost completely and we were just left with the army and a couple elected officials to supervise it – would this government not experience institutional creep as well?

Of course it would. Every government experiences institutional creep. That’s why we are where we are today. Every institution experiences creep until that institution is disbanded. Institutional creep can be slowed, it can be temporarily halted, but it’s pretty much inevitable with any budget increases. The army would soon find itself doing non-military things – as the army does now…in Canada anyway. Taxes – Oh, I’m sorry, fees given voluntarily for protection – would go up. And a cycle would emerge: fees increase, army expands, fees increase, army expands, etc.

But again I have to object to the whole idea, as the idea of a government only providing external physical protection is a thought experiment conducted outside of human history.

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.

I can’t say I know much about the Articles of Confederation beyond when they were written. I studied them very briefly in university but that’s it. (In Canada we don’t really focus much on American history.) I will instead deal with the philosophical issue.

I see two things at play here:

  1. less government is inherently better
  2. government is ineffective generally, the underlying assumption of point 1.

Most people who critique big government – and most lay people who critique government in this day and age – make a very bizarre assumption about the nature of government: government is supposed to make a profit, government is supposed to be efficient.

Tracing the origins of this concept would require a lot of work (perhaps a book) so let’s not worry about its origins and instead talk about the problem with this concept.

Governments have always run deficits at some point in each government’s existence. Always. Governments will continue to run deficits at times. Government can run deficits because

  1. they are not a for-profit business enterprise and
  2. because they are the most reliable investment out there – barring a revolution, the government is going anywhere and is very unlikely to default. (There are obviously exceptions.)

The major government financial problems we experience today are with the historically unprecedented levels of debt caused by years of large deficits, and not as a result of deficits in and of themselves.

Governments were not originally conceived as efficient – well, government wasn’t conceived as I say, it emerged first and was theorized about after.

But the point of government is not to make a profit. Government, if it has a point at all – and this is only something we can decide as a society – is supposed to protect the physical well-being of its citizens. (For those of you who are about to jump on me, I mean the actual physical well-being of its citizens and not just a strict violence-prevention role.)  In this role government should be effective, not efficient.

It’s a big difference. The efficient government – a theoretical idea – spends the least amount of time, resources, energy and money on what it should do. The effective government – again a theoretical idea – focuses on the consequences of policy, as opposed to the cost-benefit ratio. That is a huge qualitative difference.

If we conceive of government as efficiency government, I can see where the “government which governs best governs least” argument comes from. But if we conceive of government as effective government, it’s harder to see the link: effective governments – one would suppose – don’t let citizens starve to death, die of treatable medical conditions, resort to selling heroin because their education was terrible or non-existent, and the like.

The other half of this which I skipped over in dividing the idea into two parts is the paternalism part: many libertarians (and anarchists) object to the idea that government should tell them what to do. And here we come back to the fetishization of “choice”: “Free” choices are inherently good, no matter how bad they are, and we should be allowed to fail or succeed as responsible individuals.

I agree in theory. For me, I think we should all be allowed to make bad decisions – which we all will, including those in government – as much as possible, without harming others. But theory is always simpler than practice. In theory it is easy to conceive of a world where we all make “free” choices and only those that harm others are restricted by a very small government which doesn’t talk down to us like children.

In practice, all our choices are not made freely – in fact to some extent few if any of them are – and virtually all of them have unforeseen positive and negative consequences that – in terms of personal responsibility – we cannot be expected to have guessed before making said choices. Private charity doesn’t do an effective enough job of looking after those who suffer from these mistakes common to all people.

Government does sometimes mediate the problem – depending on the type of government – but if it does this paternalistically, then that is a failure of the society and not necessarily just of the government. As members of a society, we can actually work towards changing policies so they are less paternalistic. However, most of us seem to actually like paternalism to at least a small degree. (Look at the popularity of the anti-smoking campaign in Ontario, for example.) Just because a few of us are put out by this doesn’t mean that most of us wouldn’t welcome an even more paternalistic government. (I submit to you as evidence: toryism, communism, fascism, nazism and the welfare state.)

Governments order us around, obviously. This world isn’t perfect. There isn’t going to be some time where we have a non-paternalistic government (or no government). We can have less paternalistic government – that doesn’t automatically imply smaller, FYI – and we should pick and choose are battles about what matters.

Few people fought against seat belts. Few people in Ontario recently fought against banning smoking. I can see the merits of both, even though – as a non-smoker myself – I actually disagree with the smoking rules and, yes, find them paternalistic.

It’s important to me that I have free choice in areas that actually matter to me. So I didn’t fight the smoking ban. But I volunteer as a civil rights monitor for protests even though I myself would only protest in extreme situations.

We have to understand that the world isn’t full of easy or clear options and that the world isn’t necessarily logical. Theoretical ideas never result only in their logical consequences when put into practice (they have illogical consequences too). Society does not entail just having our rights and not having a paternalistic government that infringes on them; society entails choosing a certain amount of freedoms we cherish and trying to keep those free of as much government experience as is practically possible, but also accepting some level of “paternalism” in our lives, not just from government but from other citizens.

You may have noticed I have pretty much stopped addressing Molyneux’s responses at this point. I would be willing to continue doing so had they been transcribed like Stewart’s questions – as far as I know they haven’t been – but it is very hard for me to listen to such rhetoric – especially such smirking rhetoric – which fails to tackle basic philosophical questions at issue, response after response. Frankly I got tired of being spoken to like I was a child. (The sneer is for those of us who don’t agree and so we actually feel it.) Just an FYI.

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