19 January 2012

Is Libertarian Political Theory an Ex Post Rationalization?

History indicates that there is a general correlation between liberty and a host of desirable outcomes, like wealth, equality, and peace.  But the theory underlying the role of liberty in society often sounds mystical, as if liberty is a magical variable that fixes every problem that comes its way.

In many ways, the theory of liberty sounds kind of crazy.  Trusting people to act appropriately?  Trusting people to act responsibly?  Trusting people to not blow each other up when no one is there to tell them otherwise?  What could be crazier than that?

But, everyday interactions confirms to each of us that we don’t need the government telling us what to do.*  In fact, we all recognize this.  We always worry that everyone will start doing some bad thing if the government doesn’t tell them not to.  Of course, even when the government tells people to not do something, that never actually prevents them from doing it anyway.

Anyhow, the point in all this is that theory of liberty generally sounds insane to people even though the practice of liberty is tacitly accepted to work quite well.  And so, this begs the question:  Is libertarian political and economic theory simply an ex post rationalization?

We know that liberty works, for the most part, but we don’t why.  And since we’re humans, we generally desire to know why something works.  We don’t trust what we can’t explain, and so we seek to explain liberty in order to trust it more.

But the problem seems to be that we don’t really know why liberty works; only that it does.  Saying “it just does” is not a satisfactory answer to the question of liberty works, and so we have to rationalize why we do what we do in order to feel secure in what we’re doing.

* I am projecting, of course.  I generally don’t go about killing people during the course of my day.  And this will probably not change even if the government suddenly decides to legalize murder.


  1. Liberty, as a pragmatic tool in the toolkit of the tyrant, makes perfect sense in sight of my notion of "Legitimacy" which I introduced here: Legitimacy. Granting liberty to the people increases your legitimacy far more than any ceremonial guard, huge temple, grand government building, or flashy parade could ever increase it. It would have paradoxically been far more difficult to topple Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak if they had allowed their people greater liberty.

  2. @GFM- Spot on. The question for tyrants always is: how much power do you want, and where do you want to exercise it? The question for citizens always is: How much power do you want and where do you want to exercise it? As long as the two answers don't conflict, the tyrants and leaders won't conflict.

  3. Perhaphs you do not know why liberty works but it has been known for centuries and is actually a very simple economic question. Perhaps you have not studied the Austrian school of economics despite it being in your Daily Reads?

    The reason liberty leads to more desirable outcomes like wealth, equality and peace is because of the ABILITY TO PRICE. The reason socialism and its derivative forms of tyranny lead to poverty, destruction and death is because of its lack of ability to price. This difference can be distilled into the Non-Aggression Axiom: to not use violence of intimidation against innocent people or their legitmately acquired property.

    If A has a tie and B desires a tie then there are only two ways B can get A's tie; consensually or through theft. A can consent to ownership and possession of the tie by B through gift, trade or sale. B can acquire the tie through theft by stealing or fraud.

    We will accept as a given that man acts with purpose to achieve some ends they deem desirable. History has shown that most humans desire wealth, equality and peace. When property is attained consensually through a trade or sale then both parties value what they receive more than what they give or otherwise they would not make the exchange. It is in this mental calcualtion of values, whether to engage in the transaction or not, that the ability to price appears.

    When violence or coercion is used then one party is trammeled in their decision of whether to engage in the transaction and therefore is worse off from the transaction and they have no ability to not engage in it. If the thief says, "Your money or your life." and you give the thief your money then you are better off than if your life were taken but still worse off from the encounter and there is no credible argument that the person gave the thief their money willfully. Fear can be a motivator for human action but it is not nearly as accurate as a purely consensual environment.

    For example, when was the Soviet Union the most productive economically? The 1930's. Why? Because 10,000-12,000 people were being killed everyday by the government and that morbid dread sufficiently motivated the remaining to produce or die. But the misallocation of capital because of the hampered pricing mechanism still resulted in tremendous wealth destruction or lack of generation for the vast amount of society although it did enrich the political elite.

    All uses of violence or coercion against innocent people act as price controls. Price controls lead to shortages and in more exterme cases poverty, destruction and death. Government is the great oppressor of mankind because of its interference with the pricing mechanism and results in poverty, destruction, starvation and death.

  4. "Perhaphs you do not know why liberty works but it has been known for centuries and is actually a very simple economic question. Perhaps you have not studied the Austrian school of economics despite it being in your Daily Reads?"

    From your comment, it seems safe that you do not know why either. All you did was describe the "how" of liberty, not the "why." (For what it's worth, I'm very well-versed with the how.) Perhaps the following question will help to better elucidate what I'm getting at with my initial post: Why are people more inclined (from a neurological/psychological standpoint) to respond to consensus instead of coercion? Both obviously work, though to varying degrees, but the real question is why does one work better than the other? From what I've been able to tell, the answer tends to be along the lines of "it just does."