Monday, November 14, 2011

In search of the libertarian / liberal divide, part I

I often have a hard time explaining to myself why I am not a libertarian. Well, in some ways, I suppose I am, but I do not choose to identify myself as one, and the policies I tend to prefer are generally not endorsed by people who call themselves libertarians.

In part, my refusal to identify as a libertarian comes from a reluctance to be identified with the popular caricatures of libertarians: according to one of these caricatures, libertarians are minarchist extremists who support policies that would take us to a new feudalism where the owners of property rule over all in a sort of survival of the fittest world. This caricature--as well as others I could mention--is unfair to what I understand most self-proclaimed libertarians to believe. Still, that doesn't answer really why I don't identify as a libertarian. (For what it's worth, I don't identify as a Democrat, either, even though my preferred policies seem to be more congenial with what Democrats advance.)

However, when I read what consistent libertarians believe (there are always libertarians of opportunity, just as there are fellow travelers of opportunity to any ism when what what that ism advocates is congenial to them), I am sometimes at a loss to explain my differences with them. In one post, I listed things I have learned from libertarianism (click here to see it; and to that list I'll add that libertarians place a value on "choice," such that policies that tend to enlarge the number choices available to people tend to be better than policies that limit the number of choices). But although I appreciate these lessons and indeed must take them into account when I think about any of my policy preferences, they leave me at a loss to explain why I don't identify as a libertarian. This "loss to explain" is further highlighted by other (perhaps over-broad) statements about what libertarians believe, as in the explanation provided by libertarianism dot org [click here to read it in full]:*
Libertarianism is the belief that each person has the right to live his life as he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property. In the libertarian view, voluntary agreement is the gold standard of human relationships. If there is no good reason to forbid something (a good reason being that it violates the rights of others), it should be allowed. Force should be reserved for prohibiting or punishing those who themselves use force, such as murderers, robbers, rapists, kidnappers, and defrauders (who practice a kind of theft). Most people live their own lives by that code of ethics....[the definition elaborates a bit further, and I invite you to click onto the above link to see what I leave out, but I think what I've quoted here represents it fairly.]
This definition, as far as it goes, is something I could probably sign on with. I would, and do, quibble with the claim in the last sentence inasmuch as I believe we all have an inner authoritarian that out of spite or pride would forbid others from doing something which harms us not (at the same time, I believe a lot of libertarians suppose anyone to be corruptible, which is one reason why they are suspicious of concentrations of power into the government). I also believe that in the right circumstances we all are or would be tempted to resort to it. But quibbles are a fact of life, and in broad outlines much of this definition seems congenial. I do think it is over-broad because I imagine a very large number of people who are not libertarians would claim to be willing to embrace it. (Note, for example, how opponents of same sex marriage often frame their opposition in terms of how ssm would damage traditional marriage, not in terms of denying someone the right to do something that otherwise respects the rights of others.)

Too often, when I think about such things as "libertarianism" or "liberalism," I tend to focus too much on first principles and starting premises. And that focus leads me into vague, unsupported assertionism (see my claim that we all have an inner authoritarian).

Something I read recently at League of Ordinary Gentlemen, however, gives me the chance to explore further why I am not a libertarian. James Hanley, in the comment thread of a guest post at League of Ordinary Gentlemen (click here to read the post) gives a list of some policies that he, as a libertarian, would support. He calls these "marginal improvements" in order to underscore that they are doable and that libertarianism does not necessarily represent some pie-in-the-sky attempt to remake society completely de novo. Here is a concrete instance where I can say I support, oppose, or support with reservations a specifically libertarian policy and whether I support, oppose, or support with reservations out of respect for principles that might be considered libertarian or out of some other principles, or a combination. In short, examining this list will give me the opportunity to explore why I don't consider myself a libertarian and to explore what I see as some of the distinguishing features of liberalism and libertarianism. Here is the list Mr. Hanley provides, in brackets is a notation of whether I mostly support, support with reservations, or mostly oppose the given policy (click here to read the original comment):
1. End the war on drugs. [mostly support]

2. Radically reduce the armed forces (ok, that might be beyond marginal, but I think changes at the margin there are unlikely to stick). [support with reservtions]

3. Eliminate our current welfare programs and shift to a negative income tax. [support with reservations]

4. Pass a constitutional amendment that bans subsidies to any for-profit corporation. (I’m not a fan of subsidies for not-for-profit ones, either, but I don’t want to get rid of the tax deduction for contributions to non-profits, which is a de facto subsidy.) [mostly oppose]

5. Repeal the corporate income tax. It gets passed on to consumers anyway, so it’s just a way of pretending we’re making corporations pay their fair share, rather than substantively doing so. And it would reduce accounting costs and diminish the incentive to engage in rent-seeking in looking for special exemptions to it. [mostly oppose]

6. Promote the expansive use of school vouchers. [support with reservations]

7. Eliminate the federal law that allows for the creation of agricultural cartels. [support with reservations]

8. Change our health care system so that it’s actually more of a market system, reserving government’s role primarily for catastrophic care and the very poor. At a minimum this requires severing the link between employment and health insurance (which is what is actually blocking most unemployed/self-employed people from getting health insurance), and making it easier to set up inter-state buying networks. [support with reservations]

9. Allow same-sex marriage. [mostly support, with no reservations]

10. Constitutional amendment to overturn the Kelo decision. [support with reservations]
In the next few posts, I will examine each of these policies to explain why I take the position on them that I do and what role properly "libertarian" justifications play in my assessment of these policies. I will then follow up with a more general post on what this all means for defining the distinguishing features of libertarianism and liberalism.

*I do not read that site regularly and only stumbled on it a few days ago. I also cannot claim that it speaks for all or most libertarians. My very brief perusal of the site suggests to me that it relies on a question-begging, one-size-fits-all notion of liberty that amounts to preaching to the choir.

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