Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Is There Room for Libertarianism Between Anarchism and Conservatism?

What follows are some remarks provoked by Daniel McCarthy’s "In Defense of Freedom" (The American Conservative, March 14, 2005 Issue.)

McC: Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote a marvelously cynical manual of eristics called The Art of Always Being Right. The philosopher advised his readers against resort to logic; ad hominem attacks and other plays upon the passions could be much more effective. Put the opponent’’s argument in some odious category, he urged.

BV: Given that the author will shortly complain about libertarians being slandered, I should point out that the above borders on slander of Schopenhauer. First of all, the essay in question was found untitled in Schopenhauer’s Nachlass. It has been available for many years in English translation under the title, The Art of Controversy. The title McCarthy mentions is a piece of recent repackaging. Second, Schopenhauer does NOT cynically advise his readers against resort to logic, as the following passage at the end of the essay shows:

The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet, but only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to cherish truth, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong, should truth lie with him. From this it follows that scarcely one man in a hundred is worth your disputing with him.

So much for setting the record straight.

McC: Conservatives are long accustomed to residing in such a category: as their enemies would have it, conservatism is the ideology of the rich, the racist, and the illiterate. That this caricature bears no resemblance at all to the philosophy and social thought of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver or Robert Nisbet, is irrelevant. The stereotype endures not because it is true but because it is useful.

Sadly, a few conservatives seem to have learned nothing from their experience at the hands of the Left and are no less quick to present an ill-informed and malicious caricature of libertarians than leftists are to give a similarly distorted interpretation of conservatism. Rather than addressing the arguments of libertarians, these polemicists slander their foes as hedonists or Nietzscheans. In fact, there are libertine libertarians, just as there are affluent and bigoted conservatives. But libertinism itself is as distinct from libertarianism as worship of Mammon or hatred of blacks is distinct from conservatism.

BV: Fair enough.

McC: Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete system of ethics or metaphysics. Political philosophies address specifically the state and, more generally, justice in human society. The distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else. Given that murder and theft are wrong——views not unique to libertarianism, of course——the libertarian contends that the state, which is to say those individuals who purport to act in the name of the common good, has no more right to seize the property of others, beat them, conscript them, or otherwise harm them than any other institution or individual has. Beyond this, libertarianism says only that a society without institutionalized violence can indeed exist and even thrive.

BV: How then does libertarianism differ from anarchism, the doctrine that no state is morally justified? It seems clear that if the very same rules are applied to the state that are applied to individuals, then no state could be morally justified. For example, I lack the moral authority to capture and imprison people even if they have done wrong to some third party. But the government presumably has this authority. If the government has no moral authority in this and similar matters, then government (the state) has no moral justification – which amounts to anarchism.

It is worth pointing out that if no government is morally justified, then a person who uses some instrument of government such as the court system to right an alleged wrong is using an unjust means to secure his end. For example, I once sued a contractor in small claims court because he failed to do all that he agreed to do. I won a judgment against him, and to my mind justice was served. But if no government has moral authority, then what I did was no different than my calling up my cousin Vinnie in New Jersey and having him and his pals Smith and Wesson ‘encourage’ the contractor to honor his agreement.

Suppose we agree with Elizabeth Anscombe that the "fundamental question of political theory" concerns the "problem of distinguishing between states and syndicates." (Ethics, Religion and Politics, p. 136) One could then approach this fundamental question in two ways. One way, the way of the conservative, is to accept that there is a legitimate distinction and take the fundamental problem to be one of explaining the nature of that distinction and how a state could be justified in doing things that a syndicate would not be justified in doing. The other way, the way of the anarchist or radical libertarian, would be eliminativist in the sense that it would deny that there is any justifiable distinction between a state and a syndicate.

McC: For some exceptionally Christ-like people no demonstration of feasibility is needed. Doing what is right is enough, regardless of whether it brings wealth or happiness or even daily bread. But most people are not like that; they want security and prosperity—they ask, not unreasonably, not only "is it right?"" but ""can it work?" Following upon this is a tendency to deny that necessary evils are evils at all. Yes, the state seizes tax money and jails those who do not pay, actions that would be denounced as gangsterism if undertaken by a private organization. But if the only way life can go on is to have the government provide defense and other necessities, such expropriations might have to be called something other than robbery.
Moderate libertarians say just that. They propose that the state should do those necessary things that it alone can do—and only those things. Radical libertarians contend there is nothing good that only the state can provide—even its seemingly essential functions are better served by the market and voluntary institutions. The differences between thoroughgoing libertarians and moderates are profound, but the immediate prescriptions of each are similar enough: cut taxes, slash spending, no more foreign adventurism.

BV: There is a problem here. The author told us above that "the distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else." How then can there be a moderate libertarian, one who holds that there are some things that government may do which, if individuals did them, would be unethical? A moderate libertarian would seem to be a conservative. And a radical libertarian would seem to be an anarchist. It is not clear how there could be conceptual space for libertarianism if that is supposed to lie between anarchism (no state is morally justified) and conservatism (a limited state is justified).

Or am I missing something?