A Response to ‘Democracy, Coercion, and Liberty’
~by James Hanley
Erik’s been trying to work out a question about the libertarian justification of the state, and so far it hasn’t gone well. His first attempts were not well understood, at least by me, and judging by the ensuring discussions, not by most others, either. In his latest attempt I thought he phrased the issue very clearly, at least I finally caught on (granted, I may have been a bit slow), but unfortunately the debate still didn’t focus on the question he actually was asking, and I share some of the blame for that.
So now I want to address Erik’s question directly, although, of course, I will phrase things in the way that I find amenable to my thoughts on the issue. I do this in part to push my own agenda, but also in part out of a sense of fairness to Erik, who’s been pretty tolerant about all of missing his point, or at least never managing to address it in our debates.
Here is his statement of the issue:
In a society that is very libertarian, how do we create a system that is fair enough and humane enough to be sustainable? A system with too great a degree of inequality of opportunity or outcome is not a politically viable system…..how do we maintain a free market society, with limited government and protection of individual liberties, and avoid creating an inherently brittle system that is vulnerable to popular backlash?
Contra the presumed libertarian ideal, he argues:
Redistribution of some kind, if only to create stability, strikes me as pretty fundamentally important to the bigger picture, whatever your views of liberty, property rights, and so forth.
On the one hand, libertarians don’t really have to take this question seriously, since we’re not likely to ever achieve a sufficiently libertarian state that such concerns become a real-world issue. Most of us libertarians, at least those with whom I have any regular communication, are just trying to encourage marginal improvements in our current society, rather than trying to radically restructure our society in the short-term to create this largely mythical libertarian paradise.
On the other hand, all the non-libertarians here are probably sort of wondering the same thing, at least implicitly, and to the extent we have any hope of persuading people to move in a libertarian direction—which is a prerequisite for moving our society/country in a more libertarian direction—I guess it behooves us to answer it.
But first some critique is required, as Erik has inadvertently combined two quite separate issue; that of fairness and that of stability. He asks how we create a system that is “fair” and “humane” enough that it’s not too “vulnerable to political backlash.” But political backlash only incidentally overlaps with fairness and humanity. No liberal can seriously doubt that; all they have to do is look at cases of conservative backlash to dispel any doubts that political backlash has any dependency on the fairness or humanity of the system. So I’m going to answer two separate questions—first I’m going to answer in a way that rejects the assumption that the libertarian society will be unfair and inhumane, then I will—grudgingly, because I don’t think liberals have made the case—argue in a way that accepts the assumption.
Now it’s precisely because political backlash is not dependent on fairness and humanity that I agree that the libertarian society is vulnerable to backlash. People who do not get what they want from a system of voluntary exchange will inevitably have a tendency to look for other avenues to make those desired gains. Some will turn to crime, some will turn to government. There is some overlap between the two because both specialize in zero-sum exchanges, transferring wealth from one party to another without appropriate compensation. Fortunately, while crime only does that, government also has the capacity to create positive-sum exchanges, via the creation of public goods such as legal systems, national defense, waste-treatment systems, and so on. This is why libertarians find some government justifiable (to emphasize, the assumption here is minarchy, not anarchy).
But the happy fact that government can create positive-sum exchanges should not obscure the fact that a great deal of what it does consists of creating zero-sum exchanges. And therein lies the real stability problem for a libertarian society—people who are dissatisfied with their share of wealth even if that share is fair and just will turn to the government to demand some zero-sum redistribution of that wealth. And the demand for government-enforced zero-sum transactions can come from both the wealthy and the poor. So how can a libertarian society possibly sustain itself if damn near everyone has an incentive to undermine its voluntary (positive-sum) exchange basis by demanding—usually as a special exception in their case—a mandated involuntary (zero-sum) exchange?
The short and direct answer is that it probably cannot. But to move beyond pessimism and try to provide a serious answer to Erik’s question, I pose the following hypothetical solution, which rests in part on a heart-and-soul agreement with his statement that,
Ideology gets in the way of pragmatism – on every side of the political spectrum.
First, we have to provide institutional constraints against the wealthy. They are the most capable of taking control of government (one of the reasons we libertarians are skeptical of liberals’ enthusiasm for democracy), so they must be explicitly limited. By setting supermajority requirements on amending our minarchy’s constitution, we can have some real hope of limiting the wealthy class’s rent-seeking because they will, always and inevitably, be a minority.
Second, we create constitutional constraints on the potential for wholesale redistribution along Marxist/socialist lines. That is, we codify voluntary exchange as the fundamental basis and make clear that nationalization of industries or any other confiscation and redistribution of physical property is not allowed (except for an eminent domain exception that is drawn much more tightly than the current U.S. one). This might also include a cap on the amount of taxes that can be levied on any activity, to prevent confiscatory taxation without preventing general taxation for the provision of public goods.
And then we buy off the poor. Seriously. As Erik suggests, we can’t let ideology get in the way of pragmatism. So if a libertarian society does in fact result in a poorer class that will not be satisfied with its lot, even if a libertarian would claim their lot is both fair and humane, then libertarians need to commit to coercively transferring to them more wealth than they actually deserve, as a pragmatic limitation on our ideology that enables us to retain a more libertarian rather than a less libertarian society. Compromise is the art of politics, so if the question for libertarians is “somewhat less libertarian than we would like” vs. “much less libertarian than we would like,” there is no point in our pinning our hopes on “exactly as libertarian as we would like.”
Now Erik was essentially tumbling to this, but seemed to find it hard to just run with it with a fair degree of equanimity. That suggests that underneath his criticism about ideology needing to be tempered with pragmatism he was holding an implicit assumption that libertarianism as an ideology has trouble being tempered with pragmatism. If so, that confuses some libertarians, who indisputably have that difficulty, with the ideology itself, which has no inherent problem with that as far as I can see.
Sure, to the extent libertarianism is based on classical natural-rights theory there’s some conflict, but liberalism itself is originally drawn from natural-rights theory and it is not alleged to have a conflict with pragmatism. To the extent libertarianism is based on a Kuznickian theory of natural rights (which is that they are not god-given and supreme above all other considerations, but are simply those rights that humanity naturally seems to have a tendency to desire and claim) there is no conflict with pragmatism at all. And to the extent libertarianism is based on utilitarianism (my preferred model), it more or less is inherently a pragmatic ideology to begin with.
Now of course I’ve raised some hackles with my line about giving the poor “more than they deserve.” So be it; if you can’t suspend basic ideological commitments long enough to entertain hypothetical arguments, so much the worse for you. But let’s now accept the assumption of unfairness and inhumanity, just for argument’s sake (see, suspending basic ideological commitments ain’t that hard).
First, if the libertarian society does result in an unfair and inhumane level of poverty for some people, the above argument about pragmatism still holds.
Second, in that case we must accept the inevitability of incommensurability of values, which requires that we figure out how to balance those incommensurable values. That is, potentially the value of voluntarism and non-coercion are simply, at some values, irreconcilable with the value of fair and humane outcomes, so we have to figure out how to reconcile the conflict. Sure, some ideologues will say that voluntarism and non-coercion are trumps, that all must fall before them. But that position is not required, even for libertarians, because libertarians are not unconcerned with unfairness and inhumanity (in fact much of our opposition to government is based directly on our belief that it tends to foster those two things). In that case we simply temper the one value with the other.
That is, we say “voluntarism and non-coercion up to, but not beyond, the point where it becomes unfair and inhumane.”
Of course “simply” tempering them makes light of the practical difficulty of defining just where that point is. But it’s not meant to say coming to agreement on it easy, just that the agreement that such a point exist is ideologically easy.
Liberals often seem to think libertarians don’t actually have such a point, I suppose because we normally identify the point much farther down the path of voluntarism than they do. But consider, do we find libertarians arguing as vigorously against the creation of homeless shelters as they do against the Kelo decision? No, because even if too many libertarians are too glib in their assumptions about homeless people’s responsibility for their own plight, they are generally willing to accept at least some social policies to care for them, whereas they are generally rigidly unwilling to allow government to engage in zero-sum transfers of private property to business interests.
This has been a bit long, as my writings tend to be. But Erik asked a serious question that, so far, none of us (including me) has given a serious answer to. I hope I have provided some semblance of an answer that helps him chew over this issue.