Sunday, May 20, 2012

Why I harp so much on libertarianism

If anyone reads this blog regularly, they know I write a lot about libertarianism, and in most of those posts, I usually hasten to say that I am not a libertarian and explain why.  Why, then, do I write so much about it, spending precious time that I could devote to writing my dissertation?  I can think of at least two reasons.

First, I have a certain vision of how I'd like the world to be, a certain vision of what laws I'd like to see passed and of how people should treat each other and of how the state should influence how people treat each other.  This vision is not particularly coherent, nor is it all that unusual.  For example, I support gay marriage, I support universal health care provision, I support a robust social welfare system, I support an alert, but cautious role for the US in international relations (i.e., I don't like military intervention but am not fully convinced its always wrong), I support some forms of what I understand to be affirmative action, I support in principle a tax system in which the more affluent pay a greater share of their income, I support the end or sharp curtailment of the "war" on drugs, I'm coming around to supporting an open-borders immigration policy, and I support robust government coordination of the free market system (I'm purposefully avoiding the term "centralized planning" because that's not what I support).

But to be realized much (not all) of my vision would demand a certain intervention by the state, or something similar to a state.  And libertarianism provides the best critique of this vision.  And if I want to justify this vision, I find that overcoming, or at least addressing, this critique is essential.  In other words libertarianism, with its emphasis on individual "liberty" (variously and, in my opinion, often poorly defined), is a check on the authoritarian implications of my vision.

On some issues (the "war" on drugs, gay marriage), my vision is more or less compatible from the get-go with the received libertarian position (acknowledging that there is no one "received libertarian position").  On other issues--immigration policy, for example--I have been drawn more or less to the libertarian position, even if I strongly object to some of the arguments that are advanced in favor of that position.  (I really do think an "open-borders" policy is the most humane, and I support such a policy on the basis of what is humane, but I reject the frequent and sloganeering trope of "people just don't want to do the jobs immigrants do," which to my mind is mostly a way of rejecting out of hand many good-faith (if ultimately faulty) objections to open immigration.)

On still other issues, libertarian critiques have informed the way and degree to which I support certain policies.  In principle, I have no problem with compelling the more affluent to pay a higher income tax rate.  In practice, I realize one has to worry about the effects of a robust system of progressive taxation.  It's partly an issue of how much revenue is actually increased and how a tax structure may create or dismantle incentives to invest in the economy.  It's also partly an issue of fairness.  To the libertarian critique that income inequality is not necessarily so unfair that it demands government intervention, I am compelled to claim that the more affluent simply owe something to society in which they have benefited so much, which is a good assertion as far as it goes, but only if one already accepts the existence of an abstraction called "society" to which one can owe obligations.

Second, I'm already a strong believer in "individual liberty," even if I don't know what exactly I mean by "individual liberty" and even if I probably means something different from what libertarians mean by it.  Therefore my "vision" is largely congruent with what libertarians claim to want, even if I get to very different conclusions.  It is for that reason, for example, that I support measures for universal health care provision:  I believe that having a dependable and affordable access to health care helps make people "freer" because the cost of health care is thereby one less thing to worry about.  In practice, there are plenty of caveats and qualifications.  To wit a few:  most libertarians would like everybody to have access to affordable health care, too, even if they would have a different way of ensuring that access; there will always be a cost to any system of health care that can't simply be legislated away; the particular health care reform I support now (the ACA), may very well make things worse if it's implemented poorly and is not improved upon (assuming, of course, that the Supreme Court doesn't strike it down), and the shaky constitutional grounds on which it's predicated might very well serve as a bad precedent.

In other words, in some ways I am already a libertarian and in other ways, libertarianism offers the best critique and best check against my own policy preferences.  It is, in this sense, a sort of ideological conscience that reminds me I may not have yet found the true and only heaven.


James Hanley said...

I wish more non-libertarians could see libertarianism this way. It means you think about it honestly and seriously, which means you and libertarians (at least us non-whacko ones) can have real discussion.

Pierre Corneille said...

Thanks, James!

boba said...

Interesting positions, interesting because I also classify myself as a libertarian and I agree with them :^). As a veteran, (although I was in the Air Force) I hesitate to use the military because I served during the 80's and saw firsthand the product of mindless knee-jerk interventionism in Lebanon; as well as the waste of medium range nuclear deployments in Europe. Then there is that stupid waste of manpower and money in the drug-prison-security triangle. If we took the money from those efforts (and a pared down military) and invested it in a single payer basic health system we would come out far ahead. As to borders, the lack of demand for smuggling would change the dynamic there.
The government should do what I as an individual, we as a community, county and state cannot do. I like the idea of federal single payer system simply for the efficiency and for the "fairness" of the overall system. Of course, our vision of libertarian politics is a bit more "intrusive" but the intrusions are not same places where the Republicans and Democrats seek to impose their collective wills.

Pierre Corneille said...


I find little to disagree with what you say, although I still hesitate to self-identify as a libertarian.