Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Minimum Libertarian Consensus

Update: Now available online here.


Reason this month has an excellent four-part discussion1 of the libertarian approach to cultural/non-state matters. Partly its just hugely entertaining to watch the writers go after one another; Todd Seavey's response to Kerry Howley's essay is titled Freedom's Just Another Word for Kerry Howley's Preferences. Ouch... I was glad to see that they gave Kerry a chance to respond to that. Apart from sheer entertainment value it also tackles an interesting subject, namely whether libertarians should care about the particular forms which cultures assume. Obviously that's a thorny issue for a philosophy who's fundamental precept is "leave me alone please".

Daniel McCarthy, in eir essay, characterizes the issue as follows:

Libertarianism does not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of the good life. By extension, libertarianism also should not demand that everyone subscribe to the same idea of liberty.
I don't think that the latter is a necessary extension of the former; if it has no inviolable base principles then libertarianism ultimately stands for nothing at all. Though the alternative is establishing a mandatory, baseline culture to which everyone has to subscribe. McCarthy recognizes this tension in the following passage:
The danger of the Federation of Liberty is that it permits violations of liberty, perhaps even outright slavery. The danger of the Union of Liberty, however, is much worse. The trouble is not only a universal state but a universal orethodoxy, a tyranny of the supermajority that threatens to destroy the individual personality.
So where do we stand then? The Federation of Liberty is bad, but the Union of Liberty is worse. Which is it to be, Daniel, the frying pan or the fire? Or should we just chuck it all and forget about liberty altogether?

It seems to me that the way out of this dilemma is to recognize that the Federation is actually worse than the Union. If we espouse the Federation we have no theoretical recourse when someone comes and beats us up; it's totally useless as a philosophical standpoint. Which leaves us with the Union, which needn't be as dire a threat to personal individuality as McCarthy makes it out to be. The trick is to minimize the formal rules of the Union; "leave people alone if they desire to be left alone" looks to me like it strikes exactly the right balance in terms of the protection of personal autonomy. A Union chartered with this rule (and perhaps a handful of corollaries like "leave people's property alone") leaves people free to pursue whatever forms of culture they see fit provided they don't trample on other people's autonomy in the process. As a practical matter such a Union would not be a tyranny of the supermajority and would comfortably accommodate a nearly unbounded array of social configurations.

Ultimately this seems to reduce more-or-less to the system of property rights which Seavey defends, though a couple of eir examples exposes a huge issue which needs to be addressed. I agree with Seavey that, to be logically consistent, libertarians must necessarily accept the right of people to be Amish or organize themselves into fundamentalist compounds. However, and here's where Howley can get some real purchase, the unstated assumption behind Seavey's argument is that that these arrangements exist as a matter of consent. I should be free to join whatever social arrangement I want, but what happens if I find myself in one of these arrangements without my consent? Specifically, what if I'm born into one of these societies?

For the sake of argument let's suppose that I'm born into some arrangement of culture where, by virtue of contracts entered into by my grandparents many times removed, I have no property of my own. Suppose further that, reaching a state/age where I'm capable of exercising my agency, I decide to leave this arrangement. Here the libertarian is in a bit of a bind; libertarian philosophy puts an emphasis on property rights because it recognizes that such rights are a necessary condition for the promotion of individual autonomy. But the rights themselves are merely a theoretical construct expressing the reality that property itself is necessary for an individual to be able to realize their conception of the good. Does it make sense (or, even, "Is it fair?") that in this example I would find myself cast out into the world without property by virtue of a contract to which I was not a party?

The above example suggests that no multi-generational society can be completely unconstrained. If there is some set of natural rights which all persons possess (such as... say... the right to property) then a legitimate society must recognize these rights for minors up to the point where they are capable of exercising their own agency. This is not a particularly new-fangled notion; in On Civil Government Locke argues that the power of parent over child is not unlimited and must be exercised consistent with the principles of liberty2. Such a constraint necessarily limits the forms that such societies can take; I expect that the many of the social configurations to which Howley objects would probably run afoul of this rule.


1 "Are Property Rights Enough"?, vol 41., no. 6. Sadly not available online as of yet AFAIK.
2 Chapter VI

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