Holbo on Libertarianism and Propertarianism
Bleeding Heart Libertarians has an interesting symposium going about left-libertarianism, mainly of the Roderick Long/Gary Chartier variety. I’ve been following closely… …and it’s verified my hypothesis that Steve Horwitz is just about exactly right on everything:
Left-libertarians often seem to argue that even just a little bit of statism so distorts markets that the results produced by the mixed economy bear little relationship to what a freed economy would produce. Just as putting one drop of a liquid one owns into an unowned lake does not make the whole thing yours, neither does one drop of statism suddenly mean that the results of a mixed economy are vastly different from the results produced by a freed market. Overstating the transformation that freed markets would bring can lead left-libertarianism to both a dangerous utopianism about freed markets and a reluctance to challenge bad criticisms of really existing markets for fear of engaging in vulgar libertarianism. Neither vulgar libertarianism nor the more utopian moments of left-libertarianism are sufficiently nuanced to do the job. To use a phrase I used in an earlier discussion of left-libertarianism, we must carefully untangle the corporatist knot.
Steve’s carefulness weighs strongly against radicalism, and that is only the beginning of the implications one might draw from his idea-rich post. The letting-go of government power, insofar as we can do it, isn’t something we can implement, or even fully understand in outline, overnight. Yet some things are very clearly abuses that we can and should abolish immediately, and we can at times draw from libertarian political theory some justification for doing so.
But Steve’s post isn’t the one I’d like to talk about the most. That honor might go to John Holbo’s contribution, if only I were confident I knew what the hell he was getting at. Here’s a much more helpful summary, also by him:
Summary of the post. 1) autonomy has to be the goal. 2) But many libertarians are substituting propertarianism that does not plausibly optimize autonomy. 3) This is obviously no accident. There will always be those who are made uncomfortable by groups that previously did not enjoy autonomy coming to acquire it. 4) Paradoxically, libertarianism will be attractive to this lot. 5) This is such a systemic problem that it deserves address at the level of ideal theory. 6) Chartier and Johnson should be more concerned about libertarianism as a Trojan Horse for ‘vulgar libertarianism’ in their terms. They treat it as an accident, but its more essential than that.
Briefly, and in order:
I think (1) is entirely true. The goal of libertarianism, understood as a variety of liberalism, has got to be individual autonomy, and not a particular set of laws or rules to which we are a priori wedded. Yes, that means some of our political conclusions might be falsified. Bring it on!
I think (2) is not really correct. Many forms of propertarianism get summary dismissal from the left, when in fact we libertarians have reason to believe that they definitely would increase autonomy, often in ways that the left is too quick to dismiss. The clearest examples in this area are zoning, professional licensing, and small business regulations.
I think the first sentence of (3), in light of my views on (2), approaches being simply a smear. Listening to libertarians and taking them seriously would require taking seriously our claim that many (though certainly not all) forms of propertarianism do lead to greater autonomy. If you don’t want to listen to these arguments, that’s okay too, but you won’t get very far with us. We libertarians care about property a good deal. That much is baked in the libertarian cake. And it always has been, even at the very highest of theoretical levels: Take it or leave it.
I think the second sentence of (3) is manifestly true, and troubling. Rather obviously, we ought to love it when groups that previously did not enjoy very much autonomy come to acquire a whole lot of it. Nothing about individualism prohibits us from celebrating the newly acquired autonomy of a whole bunch of individuals, all at once. If absolutely necessary with a bunch of individual celebrations. But you get the idea.
I find (4) at times correct, sort of. And sort of not. One of my duties at the Cato Institute is to review unsolicited manuscripts that we receive from outside authors. Off the top of my head, we have lately gotten submissions that advocate closing the border with Mexico, getting tough on marijuana dealers, reinstating sodomy laws, and sharply curtailing the religious liberty of Muslims in the United States.
At times like these, it’s pretty clear that we need to set aside the intricate questions of political theory that tend to fascinate people like me or John Holbo. These authors just don’t have a clue about what libertarianism is.
Propertarianism versus autonomy isn’t the problem, because you could open virtually any introductory text about libertarianism and find it full of arguments that run directly counter to these submissions. We are simply being mistaken for conservatives. It’s nothing more sinister, or more theoretically interesting, than that.
Granted, with an audience that lists so hard to the right, the temptation for a libertarian to go conservative will always be strong. Rugged individualists or no, it’s super nice to be applauded. That may be why libertarians really do seem at times to decay into conservatives as they get older. (And, yeah, I do think “decay” is the right word here.)
I hardly need to mention that none of these submissions will see the light of day as Cato publications. But would it have killed their authors to look into the sorts of things we’ve published in the past? Would it have killed them to Google the altogether distinctive name of the submissions editor, and not suggest, to me, that I ought to be imprisoned?
My view is that a good deal of libertarianism’s apparent status as an appendage of the political right is an artifact of the right-fusionism that predominated during the Cold War. But if I’m right, then that’s a matter of historical contingency and thus, yes, of accident, at least as regards ideal theory, so I’d say no to (5). The Cold War ended when I was just a kid, and what I want now is a libertarianism that stands on its own two feet, and that says to both the left and the right that individuals are generally more competent to run their own lives, in almost every relevant way, than American politics has typically supposed. Particularly when the alternative is to put the government in charge, and usually then to say goodbye to personal autonomy.
Now, up to a point, I’m okay with Cato scholars being more socially liberal than their audience. After all, someone should probably make the case to the economic conservatives that social liberalism is the way to go, and we’re definitely doing that. What troubles me is that I might like to see the message get through a lot more clearly.
And as to (6), every other ideology has also become a vehicle for people who merely seek privilege and power. It should not surprise anyone that libertarianism has often done likewise. The right remedy is a healthy skepticism all around, of all of our ideological friends and enemies alike. That’s also just good mental discipline, and not terribly surprising as a conclusion. I would prescribe it for everyone if I could.