Here are some policy areas where classical liberals or libertarians seem to have a lot of common ground with those on the political left:
• Immigration – Immigration is a net benefit to the receiving country and a matter of justice to would-be migrants. We should allow more of it – probably much more.
• “Corporate welfare” – Protectionist, promotionist, and mercantilist policies (to borrow Andrew Cohen’s terminology) are inefficient and unjust, and should be abandoned.
• Agricultural Policy – Using tax dollars to prop up US or EU agribusiness is harmful to consumers’ health and pocketbooks, and is a gross injustice to poor farmers elsewhere in the world.
• Anti-militarism – Many or most of the current uses of American military power are unjust. They are also, secondarily, ineffective in advancing Americans’ genuine interests.
• Anti-war-on-drugs – The expansion of police and military power for purposes of preventing the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs is both unjust and disastrous in its consequences
The post goes on to argue that areas of disagreement between liberals and libertarians, while theoretically interesting, aren’t as practically important as these areas of agreement (where “important” means something like net effect on human well-being). The implication seems to be that liberals and libertarians should put aside their disagreements and focus on these issues where their views overlap.
While I think there’s something to this, I think liberals might rightly balk at some of it. For instance, while immigration might be a net benefit to the receiving country as a whole, liberals are going to want to talk about distributional issues before signing on. More specifically, suppose that letting in more immigrants provided a net economic benefit to a country, but also has the result of lowering wages for some identifiable group of workers in that country. It’s not obvious that the benefits yielded by increased immigration (say, cheaper labor and more inexpensive goods and services) necessarily outweigh these costs if we refuse to simply aggregate them and ignore the particular details of who’s affected.
Secondly, I’m not sure liberals will agree that these issues are categorically more important than establishing and maintaining a robust domestic social safety net, as the author suggests. (“Whether our military is off fighting unjust wars or not is much, much more important from the standpoint of both justice and people’s well-being than whether or not we have a minimum wage or a single-payer health care system.”) This post seems to take for granted that liberals and libertarians all share a kind of cosmopolitan consequentialism where, for political purposes, each person’s interests–no matter where they reside in the world–are to be weighed equally. But this assumption is by no means shared by all, or probably even most, liberals. American liberals, like most other people, are primarily concerned, from a political standpoint, about the well-being of their own countrymen. Benefitting immigrants or poor farmers overseas isn’t necessarily going to take precedence for a liberal over ensuring that all Americans have access to health care or decent jobs.
I guess the practical upshot depends on whether the proposal is a kind of ad hoc coalition or a more thoroughgoing fusion of libertarianism and liberalism. If it’s the former, there’s no reason liberals can’t work with libertarians in, say, opposing the latest U.S. war without giving up their commitment to the welfare state. But if the proposal is that liberals stop worrying about domestic social justice issues in order to focus on libertarian-friendly issues, I can’t really see why liberals should want to do that.
I’ve honestly not paid much attention to Glenn Beck–I’ve never even seen a clip of his show, and most of what I know about him comes from blogs and other media reports. This past weekend’s “Beckfest” on the Mall, though, significantly raised his profile. It’s even being suggested that he’s now the head of a new religious movement.
It seems that one of Beck’s signature themes is that Christians should have nothing to do with “social justice”–apparently he even told his viewers to leave their churches(!) if their pastors advocated social justice. Social justice has long been a bogey of the political Right–in the view of many conservatives it stands for an attempt to engineer socio-economic outcomes rather than leaving those outcomes to the workings of the free market. Libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek even claimed to find the phrase “social justice” vacuous.
The inconvenient fact, though, is that Christianity is inseparable from the quest for social justice. We could define social justice, in a rough and ready way, as social institutions oriented toward the common good and the flourishing of all people. The key point here is the attention to institutions. “Changes of heart” where people become more generous, loving, etc. are perhaps a necessary but not a sufficient condition for social justice. The structures of society (e.g., law, economy, or government) result from human decisions, and when they are unjust, humans are responsible for changing them. The idea of individual improvement divorced from efforts at social reform is a peculiarly American heresy.
This is not some fringe, lefty view of the matter. Everwhere Christianity has garnered significant influence, that influence has spilled over into attempts to reform social institutions (for both good and ill, it should be admitted–viz. prohibition). Christianity has always been a significant impetus for social reform, including playing a role the creation of a welfare and regulatory state to provide a safety net and rein in the excesses of the market.
In contrast to the majority Christian tradition, the knee-jerk vulgar libertarianism of Beck seems to oppose any efforts on the part of the government to temper the workings of the market to ensure, for instance, that no one goes without basic necessities of life or the goods they need to flourish as human persons (goods like health care, education, and a clean and healthy environment). But mainstream Christian social thought doesn’t recognize an absolute “right” to unlimited accumulation of private property severed from an orientation to the common good, and its ideal is not a government that is studiously “neutral” with respect to the outcomes of markets or other social structures. For instance, as I’ve pointed out before, the general consensus of the tradition has been that the poor are entitled, by right, to the excess wealth of the rich, so long as they lack basic necessities.
Justice, it has been said, is simply the social form of love. Clearly there’s room for reasonable disagreement about what the best means are for reforming social institutions to bring about greater justice. But it has to be said: the idea of a totally hands-off government indifferent to institutional outcomes is, at best, a minority position within Christian social thought.
This post (via Crooked Timber) is about British politics, but it nicely lays out the distinction between “economic liberalism” and “social liberalism,” or what we in the U.S. would call “market liberalism” (or libertarianism) and egalitarian or left-liberalism.
For economic (or market) liberals,
there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified.
For egalitarian liberals, by contrast,
the ‘free market’ is simply one possible ‘basic structure’ for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which ‘basic structure’ to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure – including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements – to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and ‘redistribution’ are not invasions into people’s pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally ‘theirs’. Tax-transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.
Of course, while the UK has at least one party (Labour) that is, theoretically, devoted to this egalitarian ideal, the U.S. has, essentially, more and less severe versions of market liberalism seasoned with generous dollops of crony capitalism.
My earlier post wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive critique of libertarianism, but one interesting issue that came up in the comment thread was the justice of initial property acquisition.
Libertarianism, at least in its natural-rights form, says that holdings in property are just if they are the result of just initial acquisition and voluntary exchange. So, if someone justly acquires some property, and that property is transferred by means of voluntarily entered-into contracts, then the resulting pattern of distribution is just.
One problem that vexes this account is how property can be justly acquired in the first place. The main tradition, going back at least to John Locke, is that one acquires a right to some piece of property when one removes some resource (e.g., a portion of land) from the “state of nature.” One does this by “mixing” one’s labor with it. Determining what adequately counts as “mixing” in this scenario is notoriously difficult, and, it should be noted, Locke held that such initial acquisition is only just if one leaves “as much and as good” for others (the so-called Lockean proviso).
But beyond this question, we might also ask whether it’s correct to say that natural resources start out unowned in the first place. Why suppose that the earth belongs to no one and that, therefore, anyone may remove resources from the common pool and take them as their own private property? Does everything start out unowned, without anyone else having claims upon it? At the very least, this assumption requires defense, since it’s not obviously true.
An equally plausible assumption might be this: every person (or maybe even every living, or at least sentient, creature) has a prima facie claim on an adequate portion of the earth’s resources to enable it to live a good life according to its capabilities. In other words, the earth is held in common by all living creatures to support their needs.
The plausibility of this assumption can, I think, be buttressed by considering the alternatives: if no one has such a claim, then how can anyone be expected to survive and flourish? Alternatively, if only some have such a claim, then there must be some morally relevant difference between those who have this claim and those who don’t. But what could this be?
The assumption that all sentient creatures have a prima facie claim to some portion of the earth’s goods is, at least, not obviously false, and it strikes me as having equal or greater plausibility as the assumption that material resources start out as unowned and open to unlimited private appropriation.
Even, however, if there is a theoretically possible immaculate conception of private property along the lines proposed by natural-rights libertarians, once we turn to the real world, we’re faced with the fact that very little of the existing pattern of property distribution is traceable to a pure origin. As philosopher Peter Vallentyne, a “left”-libertarian puts it:
According to libertarianism, the justice of the current distribution of legal rights over resources depends on what the past was like. Given that the history of the world is full of systematic violence (genocide, invasion, murder, assault, theft, etc.), we can be sure that the current distribution of legal rights over resources did not come about justly and that adequate reparations have not been made. At the same time, however, we have little knowledge of the specific rights violations that took place in the past (e.g., we have little knowledge of all but the most egregious rights violations that took place more than one hundred years ago). Thus, we have little knowledge of what justice today requires.
To treat the current distribution as a just baseline, then, would require ignoring the very principles of justice that natural-rights libertarians want to uphold in the first place. At the very least, this calls into question the usefulness of this ideology in providing clear-cut answers to problems facing us in the real world. By contrast, the alternative proposed above: that everyone has a prima facie claim on adequate resources, could provide concrete guidance in assessing the justice of currently existing arrangements.
A point that I’ve tried to make before, but which may bear repeating since it’s Tax Day: the distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights, or liberty, is largely illusory–or at least not that important. Libertarians sometimes use this distinction to differentiate their position from “welfare” liberals. In the libertarian utopia, rights are guarantees against interference (negative) rather than claims on resources (positive). But this distinction starts to break down once you look closely at it.
As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, a right is essentially a person’s justified claim on society to protect her in the enjoyment of some good. Mill points out that personal security from physical harm or aggression is one of, if not the most, important of such rights since, without it, we can’t do much else. But note that this right, which some might clasify as “negative,” is, in fact, a claim on some portion of society’s resources. It takes resources (money, time, labor) to protect people’s security. Similar points could be made about access to courts, the protection of personal property, etc. So, a “negative” right is no less a claim on resources than a “positive” right.
So it turns out that the distinction between positive and negative rights is not an especially important one in determining the proper scope of government action. A better criteria might be the importance of the interest protected. Following Mill, we could say that physical safety from harm is one of the most important interests that should be protected by socially provided rights. But equally important–or nearly so–are our interests in having sufficient food, shelter, clothing, health care, educational opportunities, etc. If it’s legitimate to tax people to provide security, protect property rights, and ensure access to courts, why would it be illegitimate to tax for the provision of these other goods?
The flirtation between liberals and libertarians that arose out of shared anti-Bush animus is over, according to Ed Kilgore. The causes are an economically interventionist Democratic administration and the rightward pull exerted on libertarians by Tea Partyism.
Not to mention, this Jonathan Chait piece that Kilgore links to seems like the definitive refutation of “liberaltarianism” as a political philosophy. (No ideology with a name that ugly deserves to live anyway.)
I’m not a libertarian, but libertarians do have some decent ideas, and if they followed the advice in this article they might have a better shot at implementing some of them.
I think I unhelpfully ran a few ideas together in the post on libertarianism that should be more clearly distinguished. First, there is the distinction between “negative” and “positive” rights. That is, I asserted that, in practical political terms, this distinction is fuzzier than often imagined because the protection of any right–positive or negative–requires dedicated resources. For example, my right to life isn’t a mere claim against others not to kill me, but something that we think society is obliged to take positive steps to protect (via laws, police, courts, etc.). Similarly with other rights. So, the distinction between a “negative” right to life and a “positive” right to, say, welfare does less work than libertarians sometimes suppose.
The second issue, which I didn’t adequately distinguish, is how rights are justified in the first place. A consequentialist justification would be that, all things considered, having a society that protects certain rights will, over the long run, result in a balance of good over evil consequences (bracketing the question of what “the good” consists in). As Mill said, they are the precondition of our pursuing any worthwhile projects. A deontological justification, on the other hand, would be that people (and possibly other animals) have rights simply in virtue of the kinds of beings they are. Specifically, they cannot be used merely as means for the benefit of others. Or one might say that they have the right to freedom and well-being, independently of any value they may contribute to others.
I’m more amenable to deontological arguments than the post made it sound. Indeed, I think my main point–that strict (anarcho-) libertarianism has unacceptable consequences–could be couched in more deontological terms. If human beings have certain rights in virtue of the kinds of beings they are, then a just society is one, at least, in which those rights are adequately protected. My claim was that the anarcho-libertarian utopia will not adequately protect rights because, inter alia, the rights of the weak and dependent would be dependent on either their ability to pay or on the charity of others. Moreover, if one of the rights that people have is access to the basic goods which are the precondition of any meaningful life, there are good reasons to think that a thoroughgoing laissez-faire regime would also fail miserably at securing those rights.
I’ll admit that reading Nozick (and following it up with Hayek, von Mises, Rothbard, etc.) turned me into a libertarian for a while. But the problem with Nozick’s view, as nearly every critic has pointed out, is that he doesn’t attempt to justify his intuition that people have Lockean-style natural rights. He just assumes it. Others, like Rothbard, have attempted to justify it, though I think without success. What Rothbard is, perhaps, more successful at is arguing that if you accept natural rights, then you are logically committed to anarchism, since, contra Nozick, no state can exist that doesn’t violate someone’s rights, so defined.
Now, I’m inclined to see Rothbard’s conclusion as a reductio ad absurdum of rights-based libertarianism. It just seems clear that the consequences of anarchism would be so terrible that there must be something wrong with the argument that gets you there. In this case, that would be the premise that there are libertarian-style natural rights.
If, instead of confining yourself to a natural rights position, you begin with a more consequentialist starting point, the justification of the state is pretty straightforward: everyone (or nearly everyone) would be a lot better off with a government than without it. Particularly, one might add, those who are weak or dependent in some way. Even supposing that the system of competing “protection agencies” beloved of anarcho-libertarian speculation could actually work, does anyone really want to live in a society in which your entitlement to not being killed, enslaved, or otherwise exploited was dependent upon your ability to pay?
This is where John Stuart Mill, incidentally, is better than some of his libertarian acolytes. Mill recognizes that the security provided by society is what later theorists would call a “positive” freedom rather than a sheerly “negative” one. Security of life, liberty, and property isn’t merely a matter of being “left alone,” but requires the state to take positive steps, devote resources, etc. And Mill is likewise clear that these basic rights ultimately have a consequentialist justification: a society that protects these basic rights is one that gives its citizens a better shot at flourishing.
The consequentialist justification of basic rights seems stronger to me than most natural-rights-style views, which often lean heavily on appeals to intuition. But once the distinction between positive and negative freedom is undermined, it’s hard to see why the government’s duties must be limited to those of a libertarian “night-watchman” state. All rights are positive rights in a sense, so why can’t rights to welfare, or health care, or what have you can, potentially, be justified on similar consequentialist grounds?