Monday, November 28, 2011

In search of the libertarian / liberal divide, part V

A few observations after considering a series of proposed policy changes that are representative of one person's vision of "marginal libertarianism."

First, in the future, I will think real hard before promising "a series of posts" about anything. It's a hard promise to honor with my attention span and with my other obligations. (Compared to people with full time jobs or with children to raise, my appeal "other obligations" may sound suspect, since my principal obligations are working a relatively stress free, but well-paying part time job and "writing" a dissertation. But it's my blog and I'll whine about what I want to whine about.)

Second, it is much, much easier to criticize someone else's ideas than it is to come up with one's own. My objections to most Mr. Hanley's ideas, could be boiled down to: "Here are the nits I pick, but the current state of affairs is bad, and I can't think of anything better to improve them."

Third, almost all of my objections to Mr. Hanley's ideas are what I call "libertarian-friendly." Focusing on what will work is not a necessary or sufficient attribute of libertarianism, but most of the libertarians who I've read online seem very concerned about how policies will be implemented and whether they will bring about any "perverse incentives" or create a class of "rent seekers" (rent seeking is a concept I understand only imperfectly, but I understand it as the attempt to attain or maintain special privileges or unearned income from the state). Therefore, I cannot claim my decision not to be a libertarian to be distinguishable on the grounds of my differences with most of these policies.

Fourth, on the issues in which at least some of my objections rest on non-libertarian concerns, I think I see a kernal of my differences with libertarianism. I would support or at least acquiesce to government coercion for a conception of the "public interest" that seems to be defined along lines somewhat different from those that libertarians seem to define it.

Libertarians seem to define the "public interest" as "that which affects non-participant parties" where participant is defined as "someone who knowingly and willingly takes part" in a action. If, for instance, two people decide to do something that affects someone else negatively, then there is reason to restrain those people from acting, or at least require them to redress the "negative externalities" they create, all in the name of a "public interest." Conversely, if a policy would enable someone to do something that either does not affect non-participants negatively, or that benefits non-participants (or creates "positive externalities"), then that policy is probably good and serves a "public interest."

I think I differ in that I would enlargen (a real word? my spell check doesn't think so; maybe I should say "embiggen"?) the notion of "public interest" to include some an "obligation by those who have done well by the way things are to support others who have not done so well and the state ought to enforce this obligation." I see two problems with this view, neither of which I am yet able to resolve:
  • It is mere assertion. I think that deep down, I agree with it, but I have no proof other than "that's what I believe."
  • It allows for a potentially expansive state, with little check on state powers, for measures that check individual liberty, or at least by most definitions of "liberty." (Too often, I see people use the word "liberty" as self-evident, as if there might not be competing definitions of liberty.)
Regardless of the problems, I think this is where I differ from libertarianism. The difference doesn't necessarily have much to do with disagreement on policy, but rather on my higher tolerance of and acquiescence to state intervention by way of a more expansive justification for that intervention.

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