Comment Rescue: A Priorism in Libertarianism
Yeah, the problem with extremely principled libertarianism is the a priorism of their reasoning. (As sometimes self-ascribed libertarian William Buckley famously charged.)
I’ve been reading about this whole issue of a priorism in libertarianism and find it fascinating. I love this paper (editor’s warning:PDF) by Jeffrey Friedman:
“To put my thesis in more technical language, libertarian doctrine triest o unite consequentialist arguments about the harmful empirical effects of the modern state with nonconsequentialist arguments about the allegedly intrinsic evil of state regulation and redistribution. A purely consequentialist, “empirical” libertarianism could, on its own, largely accept as valid the meliorist aims listed by Corenude, challenging mainly whether the state is capable of achieving them without causing even worse problems. A purely nonconsequentialist, “philosophical” libertarianism, modern state as intrinsically unjust, regardless of whether or not it actually rectifles the “abuses” of capitalism. This form of libertarian- ism cannot accept the notion that any end justifies the coercive means used by the redistributive, regulatory state. Such ends are therefore seen as illegitimate political goals, although they may be laudable objects of private, nonpolitical action. Why empirical and philosophical forms of argument should conflict with each other, and why libertarians nonetheless try to yoke them together, will be my chief concern,”
First there is utilitarian libertarianism, a la Roger and Charles Murray:
“The utilitarian libertarian, however, is obliged to show that the utility of property rights is so nearly universal that all government intervention with them is bound to fail, when judged against the standard of human happiness.”
In simpler terms, the evidence for utilitarian libertarianism must be empirical.
“Extrapolating from these trends [basically how societies with mixed markets improve over time], either to the conclusion that “capitalism can’t do anything right” (as it appeared in, say, 1932) or that “government can’t do anything right” (as it may appear today) is simply unwarranted. The truth could lie somewhere in the ‘middle; that is what makes the social—democratic order so difficult for simplistic forms of libertarianism to challenge effectively.”
In other words, the empirical data we have about different societies does not say that that laissez-faire markets are best universally, in all contexts.
Thus, utilitarian libertarianism is not justified by empirical means, so the libertarian swithces tactics and argues a priori that state intervention is intriniscally wrong.
This leads us to Philosophical/Intrinsic Libertarianism, a la Boaz, and MFarmer:
“Boaz believes, then, that governments should enforce self-evident fundamental rights rather than pursuing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Indeed, rights are important because they “protect us from others who might use force against us” (3)—including those who would use force to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number. “The libertarian goal is a society free of coercion” (217). The chief defect of the state is not that it stands in the way of happiness, but that it stands in the way of liberty. That, of course, is why Boaz’s doctrine is called libertarianism. But libertarianism would simply be liberalism ifnot for its equation of “liberty” with private property. [As Shazbot has often argued]”
Philosophical Libertarians point out that statism treats people as slaves, as not “self-owned” and that is intrinsically wrong, even if everyone is blissfully happy with it, just as slavery is intrinsically wrong, even if you keep the slaves happy,
This philosophical libertarianism implies that redistribution of wealth is intrinsically wrong because it violates property rights. If some are left poor, they do not have a right to healthcare or housing or televisions. Those are positive rights. And Philosophical Libertarianism says all liberty is being free from having your negative rights violated.
But then we can ask “What is so much better about negative rights than positive rights?”
“Once we recognize that libertarians can legitimately claim an advantage over Communism [because we have given up the utilitarian dispute] only on the basis of positive freedom, however, it becomes unclear why one should prefer (philosophical) libertarianism to social democracy. For the social democrat wants to ensure that the opportunity for goal attainment that libertarians extend from high Communist officials to property owners does not stop there, leaving out the propertyless. In other words, the social democrat wants to equalize positive freedom, but more rigorously than does the libertarian. The libertarian’s libertarianism turns out to be less complete than that of the social democrat, since the libertarian would arbitrarily extend positive liberty only to those who happen to have acquired title to pieces of the world. The social democrat asks why only property owners,rather than all human beings, should be able to attain their goals. Or, more accurately, the social democrat asks why only those who have “mixed” their labor with the world, or those who have received bequests or exchanges from others who have mixed their labor with the world, should be entitled to pieces of the world with which they may attain their goals.”
It is true that there is an account of the social contract [Locke’s] which would imply that we should be Philosophical Libertarians. But there are other accounts of the social contract (e.g. Rawls’s) that imply that we shouldn’t be Libertarians. And it is very difficult, on a priori grounds to prove that one is better than the other. Philosophical Libertarians have not met this challenge.
So the is no empirical and no philosophical good argument for Libertarianism. The doctrine survives by “straddling” the empirical and the a priori.