“Libertarianism and Madisonianism
~ by James Hanley
BlaiseP made the following Madison-inspired comment about libertarianism:
It is a statement of sovereign truth that every scheme which believes men to be angels, that freedom is the highest good, that the public good shall be subordinated to the private interest, is either a recipe for tyranny or a Panglossian panegyric devoid of any understanding of human nature.
I would need to write several lengthy posts to unpack and analyze all the implications of that sentence (which is a compliment–there’s a lot of tightly compressed substance in those few words), but for present purposes the only thing I want to focus on is the foundational assumption of the argument, that libertarianism is a “scheme which believes men to be angels.”
I hear the claim that libertarianism depends upon the goodness of men frequently from liberals, but I have also heard it from conservatives. And to avoid any game-playing I need to emphasize that I think perhaps there are libertarians who either believe it or who inadvertently give the implication that they believe it. (For example, I think any libertarian who argues that people in government are fundamentally different–worse–than others are implying that other people are more angelic.)
But it nevertheless is a misrepresentation of libertarianism as a body of thought. I’m truly not well-read in libertarian theory (I don’t even own a copy of Boaz’s A Libertarian Primer), so I can’t say with certainty that no libertarian theorist believes in the angelic vision of humanity, but I can say with certainty that no writing by a libertarian theorist that I’ve ever read myself even begins to suggest such a concept.
Three crucial (I think) and universal (I’m pretty sure) elements of libertarianism directly undermine the claim: Libertarians recognize and oppose coercion; libertarians do not believe in unconstrained behavior; libertarians see government as the most dangerous venue for coercion.
1. Libertarians Recognize and Oppose Coercion
Angelic beings would not tend to engage in coercion, yet to libertarians coercion is an inevitable (or nearly so) feature of the human condition, and their main concern is how to minimize it. Of course a person can argue fairly that the libertarian solution is terribly wrong, and would make the problem worse rather than better (which, in fact, is a standard liberal argument), but I don’t think anyone can argue fairly that libertarians don’t see coercion as a fundamental feature of human society. In fact the minimal night-watchman state that even very strong libertarians favor is their grudging acceptance that some government is necessary, because the sole purpose of the night watchman state is to correct cases of coercion. If they truly believed in the angelic vision of humanity they wouldn’t even accept the necessity of the night-watchman state.
2. Libertarians Don’t Believe in Zero Constraints on Human Behavior.
If we were angelic, no behavioral constraints would be necessary. The issue is the nature of the constraints, and libertarians prefer constraints that are less coercive, the two primary means being competition and self-sorting. Competition limits the ability to be un-angelic toward each other because it is based on seeking out reciprocal, voluntary exchanges. If I cheat or harm others, I will find it harder to persuade others to enter into exchanges with me. That reality, which liberals doubt, tends to break down primarily only when real competition breaks down. The more competitive the market, the more fairness towards exchange-partners we will find. For example, Wal-Mart and Target have extraordinarily generous return policies, a recognition how important it is in their competitive market to avoid even the appearance of having cheated their exchange partners.
More broadly, and incorporating that concept of voluntary exchange in competitive systems, self-sorting allows us to seek out associations only with those we find trustworthy. In extremely fluid social structures, there is great potential for “hit and run” cheating–anyone who intends to interact with you only one time, then move on to a new location, is not constrained by the reputational effect discussed above. But by self-sorting we minimize the capacity for being cheater by such bad characters. And in using reputational effects to join others we voluntarily bind ourselves reciprocally, accepting that they are using our reputation in deciding whether to join us or let us join them.
3. Libertarians See Government as the Most Dangerous Venue for Coercion.
The primary reason libertarians are opposed to an expansive government is that government is fundamentally based on the capacity for coercion. The dominant definition of the state is Max Weber’s claim that it is the institution that “successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.” As Weber notes, the state cannot be defined by its purposes or activities since their is nothing it does that has not been done by private entities. The sole distinction is in its successfully persuading others that its use of force is legitimate. And without that force, what would be the point of government? Government, at its best, exists to correct what does not go well in its absence, and that requires force. And government at its worst is pure force, not to set things right but solely to benefit the governors.
Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, describes how formal government appears to have risen in direct consequence to agriculture and the subsequent development of food surpluses. That is, formal government (as opposed to the more informal rule of chiefs and “big men”) developed primarily for the purpose of controlling those food surpluses, and doling them out in varying amounts dependent on the varying degrees to which individuals were favored. This was not pure kleptocracy, perhaps, since the governors also took responsibility for protecting the food surpluses from rot and theft by others, but neither was it anything remotely resembling pure public spiritedness. And R. J. Rummel, in Death by Government has shown that in the 20th century governments killed up to or even more than 170 million people, not including those who died in battles. Add in the tens of millions who died in the wars fought by government, and its clear that governments are often little more than merciless killing machines. And who is most likely to seek out this force? Do good, gentle, other-concerned people seek this power out as relentlessly as those who are evil, self-interested, and tyrannical in spirit? (The primary, or even sole, advantage of democracy is that it gives the good people a better chance, and gives the governed better opportunity to keep those bad people out of power.)
One doesn’t need to believe that human society in the absence of government is remotely paradisaical to believe that government is even more hellish. Again, it’s wholly fair to argue the libertarian conclusion, but it’s clearly in error to dispute the libertarian assumption
Conclusion: Libertarians are Madisonians (but not vice-versa)
Because libertarians believe humans are not angels, they grudgingly accept the necessity of some degree of government. But because they believe humans are not angels, they are also desperate to keep that government very limited. That is, in fact, precisely Madison’s position. He said, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and that because governments were administered by men, rather than angels, it is necessary “oblige [government] to control itself.” To the extent they differ from Madison, libertarians are just more dubious about the capacity to make government self-controlling. This does not mean Madison was a libertarian–that would be anachronistic, at best–but it does mean libertarians are tolerably Madisonian.
But believing humans are angelic? That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the conceptual foundations of libertarianism.