Libertarianism re-visited

William Bradford has a good write-up of Robert Nozick’s classic Anarchy, State & Utopia, which William just finished reading for the first time.

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?


9 thoughts on “Libertarianism re-visited

  1. Pingback: Matchmaker, Matchmaker… | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  2. “Consequentialism” covers a lot of ground, and generally stipulates a single good to whose maximization everything else is sacrificed.

    Stipulating “utility” as the one good lands you in the land of the utilitarians.

    The reductio arguments against act utilitarianism are well known and easy to find.

    There are floods of them.

    It has been argued – I think successfully – that no coherent utilitarianism can stop with rules or practices, and any must ultimately collapse into act utilitarianism.

    As for Mill, it is often said that interpretations can be found to make any two of his major books consistent, but not more.

    And in at least one of them – probably several – he shows how consequentialist arguments are possible that do not necessarily presuppose a single good to which all others are reduced or sacrificed, and do not necessarily suppose even that all goods are fungible, and do not argue for maximization but only for advancement of the good(s) in question.

    In his very interesting “Considerations on Representative Government” it is much more natural to see him as subscribing to a list of virtues for which no deeper justification is offered or apparently thought necessary, including both personal and civic responsibility and autonomy, and offering as his central justification for “popular government” and democracy and the packages of rights appertaining thereto, in contrast to authoritarian government, that only the former demands and develops these and other virtues.

    Certainly, that’s a sort of consequentialist justification for popular government.

    But he also argues for democracy by insisting it affords the people the best means of insuring they get so much justice as demands that their interests and rights be properly taken into account in governance.

    Yet another consequentialist justification, this time frankly adverting to justice and rights.

    Elsewhere he also makes arguments appealing to welfare.

    There are lots of consequentialist arguments for popular government, and they don’t all ignore any of rights, virtues, and welfare.

    It seems that the libertarian arguments based on rights you allude to take a rather Pauline approach – you cannot do evil (make a state that will inevitably violate some rights) that good may come (that rights may be more often honored than otherwise).

    But Mill illustrates how they can form part of the good to be advanced in consequentialist arguments for the state, and in particular for a democratic state.

    As for the ultimate value of rights and virtues, he (and we) may well agree that the justification for so regarding the relevant claims and character traits is at least in part by appeal to their utility, much as Hume would say, at least about the virtues.

    But to say that can well be true while to make any more expressly utilitarian claim, such as that X is a virtue if a population in which it is generally manifest, other things equal, enjoys a higher utility than if without, is certainly different and may well be false.

    And, anyway, consequentialist justification reaches a stopping point with at least one ultimate good NOT justified by a consequentialist argument.

    So you’re still going to be dealing in at least one good not accountable in that way.

    It might be utility, but it might be public virtue or observance of rights or the prevalence of justice, or any group of these and possibly others, as well.

    So (a) what sort of Consequentialism are you looking for and (b) why leave right out of the argument, even if allegedly “natural” in some sense that does not ultimately reduce to a further consequentialist justification?


    That the state libertarians are willing to maybe allow is the “night watchman state” is not due to the appeal to natural rights but to the particular package of natural rights libertarianism asserts.

    In particular, it is due to the doctrine of rightful acquisition and transfer that arbitrarily allows quite broad individual rights of property and exchange while denying the community or the state, or the people as a whole acting democratically, any rights of its own to acquire or control the property of individuals at all, or even property acquired from nature, itself.

    That is mere dogmatism, and there is nothing in the idea of natural rights per se that justifies this individualist exclusion of collective rights making the state no more than a questionable, mere agent for individuals with no authority to do more than pursue or defend their several, separate, individual rights.

    It is pure individualist dogmatism to deny that the sovereign people has rights no individual or private group of individuals has, including the right to legislate at least in some cases in contravention or limitation of those presumed individual rights.

    It is the same dogmatism that often seems to underlie rejection of claims common throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries that at least under some circumstances peoples of distinct ethnic nationality or otherwise identified as subjects of nationalism have a right to form an independent, sovereign, national state.

    Yet that was a claim appealed to and commonly accepted by liberal thought in Europe to justify both Italian and German unification as well as dismemberment of the Austrian Empire, and in Africa and Asia in the 20th Century especially to justify anti-colonialism.

    Clearly, if these rights exist at all it is only individualist dogmatism to insist they are somehow reducible to or exhausted by individual rights.

    Oh, and even if we stay with the idea that only individuals have natural rights, what other than American tradition privileges the Lockean notion of a minimal concession of authority to the state enabling it to safeguard pre-existing natural rights of individuals kept intact in the process of erecting the state over the Rousseauian notion that each individual gives up everything to the state which then has the unique right, authority, and power to define the terms of collective life and the rights each citizen will enjoy within the state?

    Not that I personally much like either, of course.

    • I may be misreading you, but I don’t think it’s an argument against consequentialism to say that it has to stop “at least one ultimate good NOT justified by a consequentialist argument.” On the contrary, it seems like a necessary component of any consequentialist argument–that there’s some good which is chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else.

      Personally, I’m not a thorough-going consequentialist, but I do think that Mill provides a helpful antidote to overzealous “natural rights” libertarians (and others) who think that rights must be observed tho’ the heavens fall. It just seems to me that rights can’t be free-standing in the way that natural rights theorists sometime imagine. In other words, rights are important because they secure certain vital human interests that are necessary for us to have a worthwhile existence at all. (That’s essentially Mill’s argument in the chapter on justice in “Utilitarianism.”)

  3. PS, again.

    Contrast Mill’s view of the liberty secured by and justifying representative government with Benjamin Constant’s idea that the liberty of the moderns is quite different from that of the ancients.

    Mill’s essentially includes the civic responsibility necessary for and exercised through participation in collective, popular self-government.

    Such liberty essentially requires popular government rather than justifying it, if at all, only as an otherwise indifferent means, since popular government is the general and collective exercise of such virtues.

    Constant insists that civic virtue and participation in government are essential to the liberty of the ancients but not that of the moderns, the latter including only purely private rights such as freedom of religious opinion and constituting in general the right to pursue one’s personal pleasures in private, most especially including the enjoyments of one’s riches.

    This liberty is aptly thought of as a claimed right to a vice privatus enflamed by the spectacle of one’s treasure, by an even perverse and reckless successful avarice.

    Modern libertarians and conservatives who say the question of the form of government is of no intrinsic concern but a mere question of finding the best means to secure those private rights are following in the footsteps of Constant and his understanding of the liberty that is, according to liberal dogma, the one legitimate political value, the one aim and treasure of politics and political action – the kind of liberty they sometimes summarize as freedom from interference or just being left alone.

    And what a sorry conception of liberty that is!

    Modern republicans are much better and more Mill-like on this point, but also seem to share with Mill what I think is the mistake of rejecting many typical working class political demands that emerged in the 19th and 20th Centuries, not seeing them as essential to popular and collective sovereignty over the economic life and power relations of the community, whether exercised through the regulatory state or even confiscatory socialism or through union participation in corporate management.

  4. “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.”

    By “consequences of anarchism” do you mean what you would get if you could press a magic button and all government would disappear? Or something else?

    Given what principles fuel anarchism, it seems that another way of stating the point would be that the consequences of violating nobody’s rights would be terrible.

    • The point I was trying to get at was that it’s not implausible to suppose that an anarchist society (i.e., a society with no government) would be deficient with respect to human well-being in a whole host of ways. I realize that anarcho-libertarians have a whole host of ideas as to how the goods currently secured by government would be secured by competing private agencies or communes or whatever, but surely the empirical burden of proof is on the anarchist?

      In other words: a society that formally respected everyone’s rights as libertarians define them (e.g., no one initiated coercion) could still be miserable in a lot of ways. I suggest that an adequate social ethic also has to take consequences into account.

  5. “Surely the empirical burden of proof is on the anarchist?”

    Assuming consequentialism, perhaps it would be. (I imagine they could argue the cases. There are a lot of cases here, and not just one.) But I reject consequentialism.

    Perhaps ironically, Rothbard provides a lot of the research into how many of the goods secured by government have been secured by private means in the past. Much less of this is purely theoretical than people imagine. I would imagine further that with better technology, many of these things would work better than they worked, say, in the colonial period.

    Do remember that in addition to promising that you can be sure of getting certain goods (e.g. justice), the government will also claim to be the monopoly distributor of such goods. They will often enforce your lack of certain goods that you might otherwise find a provider for.

  6. Pingback: Rights-talk and some distinctions « A Thinking Reed

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