17 January 2012

In Defense of Libertarianism


Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable -- all are to take a back seat.

Apparently Jeffrey Sachs is completely unaware of the concept of “guiding principles.”  These sorts of principles are principles by which one lives his life.  Naturally, having guiding principles means that other principles will, by definition, take a back seat.

Guiding principles are necessary for a couple of reasons.  First, humans have a limited amount of cognitive capacity, which necessitates the need for intellectual short-cuts; it simply isn’t feasible to consider every decision and problem on its merits, hence the need for principles.  Second, humans have a limited amount of time, which necessitates prioritization of everything, including principles.  There are some things humans simply don’t have time for, which means that some things will necessarily take a back seat to other things.

Beyond that, though, liberty is not antithetical to compassion, justice, honesty, etc.  In fact, liberty often enables these very things.

After Hurricane Katrina, who was accused of lacking compassion:  FEMA or Walmart?  Who receives more complaints about injustice:  the government-run courts system or private arbitrators?  And who has the reputation for dishonesty:  politicians or entrepreneurs?  This is not, of course, a thorough analysis of the assertion made, but the point should be clear:  Liberty (economic or otherwise) has never once precluded compassion, justice, honesty, or any of the other ideals listed from being values in their own right.

When libertarians translate the idea of liberty into the political and economic spheres, they argue that government should operate only to protect personal liberty and not for any other cause. According to libertarians, the sole role of government is to enforce private contracts and to keep the peace so that no one can use force to deprive the liberty of another. In English political theory, this is called the "night watchman state."

This is an entirely correct assertion.  Note that the “night watchman state” is not only friendly to the value of justice, but is actually predicated on it.

By taking an extreme view -- that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society's values -- libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person's life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.

The first assertion is laughably wrong.  No libertarian champions the idea that liberty alone is to be defended; rather, libertarians champion the idea that liberty alone is to be defended by the state.  All the other so-called “social values” can and should be defended by individuals.

To belabor the obvious, the reason for the view that state should only concern itself with the defense of liberty while leaving the defense of all other social values to individuals is fairly simple:  liberty, unlike most other social values, is a fairly simply defined concept.  Either you have the ability to do as you desire insofar as you do not infringe on anther’s rights of self-governance or you do not.  Justice, as a concept, is not as easily defined or practiced.  And since compassion, much like civic responsibility, decency, et al. has more variance in its definition, it is both wise and prudent to allow the practice of compassion to have more experimentation in its implementation, which is to say that compassion should not take a one-size-fits-all approach to policy.  Stated another way, compassion is too complex a subject to receive the singular treatment it would undoubtedly suffer at the hands of the state.

Furthermore, the example offered by Sachs is just too simplistic to be taken seriously.  How did the rich man attain his wealth?  Why did the poor man fail to attain wealth?  In what way can any person be morally compelled to save the life of another?  And since when has the government become a reliable barometer for morality?

These questions are serious, and must be answered.  Scenarios do not arise in a vacuum, after all.  If the rich man has attained his wealth through hard work and prudence, is it truly just to take that from him?  If the poor man has attained poverty because he is lazy, willfully ignorant, and refuses to plan for his future, is it truly just to give him money?

Is it not true that many wealthy people have worked hard for their money?  Is it not true that many rich people are wealthy because they are prudent?  In what system of justice is hard work and prudence punished?

Additionally, is it not true that many poor people bring their poverty upon themselves?  Is it not true that many poor people are poor because they decide to forego a high school education, work hard, save money, and plan for the future?  And how can it be considered just to “save their lives” when poverty (and, by extension, early death) is the quite-natural result of their foolish, impoverishing decisions?  And does not nature itself have a certain justness to it, in its results?  Why, then, ignore this natural law?

Most ethical and political systems find the libertarian position abhorrent, indeed preposterous. Most would hold that the government can, should, and indeed must, tax the rich person to save the poor person. That's because most ethical and political systems hold that liberty is only one value among many important values, and that the value of the indigent's life takes priority over the liberty of the rich individual.

That most ethical and political systems find the libertarian position abhorrent is not proof of its invalidity.  (Note also that the terms of this claim are too nebulous to enable this claim to be proven.)  If most ethical and political systems found, say, Jeffrey Sachs to be an abhorrent, vapid troglodyte, would this suffice as proof that Jeffrey Sachs should not be permitted to exist in any form?

That most hold that the government should tax the rich is likewise no proof of validity.  What if, for example, most people thought it wise to rid the world of, say, the incessantly troglodytic Jeffrey Sachs?  Vive gladio peri gladio.

This then brings us to an important thought experiment, consisting of three questions.  First, should society value life to the extent that humans are not slaughtered en masse for any reason?  Second, in the 1950s and 60s, which was more libertarian:  the United States or China?  Third, which country, in the 1950s and 60s, slaughtered more people en masse?

As should be clear, Sachs is apparently incapable of wrapping both his brain cells around the central insight of libertarian philosophy:  The reason to cherish liberty above all other values is not because all other values are worthless, but because liberty is the greatest surety for the enactment of all other values.  You see, it is not liberty that is the greatest threat to “compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable;” it is the state.  History shows, time and again, that it is the state that promotes callousness, injustice, dishonesty, indecency, arrogance, disrespect, and the destruction of the poor, weak, and vulnerable.

It is easy to forget that the apparent compassion of the modern welfare state is nothing more than an historical aberration.  For millennia, the state has oppressed the poor, not helped them.  For millennia, the state has been indifferent to the poor and middle class.  It is freedom that enabled the poor to escape poverty.

It is liberty that encourages honesty, it is liberty that encourages decency, it is liberty that encourages compassion, and it is liberty that enables the survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable.  And that is why liberty takes precedence among all other values.

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