Empirically Libertarian

November 13, 2008

It’s an exciting time over at Will Wilkinson’s blog, with different flavors of libertarians duking it out over who shall receive the honored title of “libertarian,” and who must accept the wimpy “liberal” moniker.

Basically, Wilkinson has revealed himself as a namby-pamby, big-government-loving, socialist who thinks it would be a great idea for the government to tell everyone what to eat, where to work, what to think, etc., if it weren’t for the pesky fact that, well, government produces terrible results when doing any of those things.

What started out as a discussion of whether feminism is a “libertarian” philosophy turned into a fight over the fundamental basis of libertarianism. And, sadly, it looks like Wilkinson has made a good point, and that point is this: you can’t just be a libertarian; you need a reason to be one.

The argument, as far as I can tell, has two components: first, non-coercion is not the solid principle that most libertarians believe it is. Second, liberty consists of more than being free from some specific entity that calls itself “the Government,” but rather that liberty is all the influences in your life that give you more options to do stuff.

The Argument:

First, defining “coercion” as “aggressive violence” is inappropriately restrictive. Whether I kill you for no reason, or I kill you because you are trespassing on land that I own, you are dead. What’s more, by killing you for being on my land, I am forcing you not to do something you would otherwise do, or at least raising the cost significantly. Wilkinson writes “A system of private property is a system of coercion. It may be justified coercion. It is justified coercion. But then the question is: What justifies it?” Just so. Libertarianism can’t stem from opposition to violence, because they are in favor of some types of violence. Private property is a coercive system that does a better job than any other of furthering the end of increasing liberty; that’s why it’s acceptable.

Second, liberty is about more than the government. Negative liberty is good, but positive liberty is not really different, even if they are philosophically distinguishable. If no one will lend money to you because you are black, your choices are genuinely restricted, and on the same basis that libertarians find that restriction objectionable when government does it, they should find it objectionable when private citizens do it. One might envision liberty as some kind of a “weighted sum” of the different kinds of liberty, and the goal of a libertarian could be stated as maximizing this weighted sum.

The majority of libertarians, who think only about negative liberty but think that positive liberty is great (…for them to poop on!) wouldn’t accept this argument, because when combined with a conception of government as an institution that has an ounce of competence at accomplishing its stated goals, Wilkinson’s “greatest liberty for the greatest number” principle leads to socialism. He just doesn’t happen to believe that government competence can be weighed in ounces.

Do I accept Wilkinson’s argument? I don’t know. That’s why I wrote this post, in the hope of understanding the position well enough to say whether I agree or not. According to biologist Bill Hamilton (as paraphrased by Clay Shirky on EconTalk), the stages in the life of reaction to a theory are as follows:

1. “That’s not true”
2. “It’s an interesting argument, but probably false”
3. “That can be applied to some fringe cases”
4. “I have always believed that”

I’m at stage three.

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3 Responses to “Empirically Libertarian”

  1. Rrrrobert! Says:

    Watch out, Bill, this is a slippery slope. Soon you’ll be worrying about how best to design appropriate government interventions, and how to systemically improve the quality of government programs, instead of worrying about whether or not intervention is beneficial. Once you admit that intervention might be beneficial, non-intervention becomes less attractive – an unsatisfying placeholder for the policy that could be better if only we could better construct it.


  2. […] November 14, 2008 [followup to: Empirically Libertarian] […]


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