Libertarianism and the politics of human frailty

Jim Henley, who’s long been one of my favorite bloggers, has been writing a really interesting series of posts touching on aspects of his defection from libertarianism toward a more liberal/social-democratic politics. In his most recent post, Jim wonders if libertarianism is “an inevitably temporary political outlook.” He notes that many people seem to “outgrow” libertarianism as they age or have kids, or when some other particular circumstance seems to call for deviation from the True Faith, even if they still call themselves libertarians (e.g., pro-war libertarians, pro-welfare-state libertarians). He goes on to admit that part of what moved him away from it was a realization of the concrete effects that some of the policies he’d formerly advocated–Social Security privatization in his case–would have on his family and families less well off than his once they seemed to enjoy some real chance of being enacted.

I was never a “professional” or even semi-professional libertarian, but I did identify with libertarianism for much of my mid-20s. I read Nozick, Friedman, Sowell, Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, etc., and even penned a handful of articles for some libertarian websites. I think that, like Jim, my disaffection was partly intellectual and partly personal. On the intellectual side, I came to see the logical endpoint of libertarianism as a society in which your status is ultimately determined by your ability to pay. In the anarcho-capitalist utopia, for example, people’s rights are supposed to be secured by competing private protection agencies, which presumably operate according to the profit motive. Consequently, anyone unable to pay their way is at the mercy of others. Conversely, the most compelling case for a robust government is precisely the protection of the interests of the weak, and a leveling of the playing field between the weak and the strong. Moreover, the intellectual foundations of rights-based libertarianism (Lockean views of property rights, a strong distinction between “positive” and “negative” freedom, etc.) revealed themselves to be much shakier than I thought.

On the more personal side, I had to admit that most of the (modest) success I’ve enjoyed in life wouldn’t have been possible without the support of many of the public institutions that libertarians scorn. My family weathered the storms of Reaganomics partly through the benefit of public assistance; after that, my father was disabled by an accident at work, and our family survived through a combination of worker’s compensation and Social Security benefits; I went to public schools and public universities, partly with the assistance of government-guaranteed student loans and Pell grants. How could I consistently advocate the dismantling of these institutions that had made my life possible? A society without them would be meaner, less equal, and less just than one with them–or so I now believe.

As I’ve gotten older and started a family, my political views have been more informed by what I like to think is a greater appreciation for human frailty. People are not, in general, rugged individualists, including those who think they are. Each one of us is just one accident or piece of bad luck away from becoming utterly dependent on others. The idea that you could tear down the institutions that we’ve built for collective support–rickety and ad hoc though they are–without causing a lot of human suffering is not remotely plausible. And the view that private institutions would spontaneously arise to take their place strikes me as naive.

But at the same time, because of that very fragility, I’ve become more tolerant of human difference and diversity. I’m less convinced than ever that there’s one “right” way to live which can be prescribed for everybody.* As often as not, people are simply making the best they can of whatever hand nature/society/luck has dealt them. Parenting is a good example: there is no end of advice on how to raise the “perfect” kid (however you define that); but in practice, you end up just muddling through a great deal, hoping not to damge your kids too much in the process. Trying to impose a one-size-fits-all model onto human life is likely to do more damage than good. A welfare-liberalism that respects pluralism best approximates the politics appropriate to such a view.
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*This isn’t moral relativism, but rather an admission that there can be a variety of legitimate forms of life or “experiments in living,” to use J.S. Mill’s phrase.

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9 thoughts on “Libertarianism and the politics of human frailty

  1. “Each one of us is just one accident or piece of bad luck away from becoming utterly dependent on others.”

    That’s been my experience. I like John Rawls’ way of imagining a system that would take this into account.

    1. Human frailty is a big and underappreciated deal. But it does not follow that your frailty is a justly enforceable claim upon others. You can’t just go directly from “most people are likely to need help” to “it is OK for people to force other people to help them.”

      Likewise, it may well be that private institutions would not always do the same work of collective support as government institutions. But whether they would or would not, they at least would not institutionalize the idea that, if and when I have some great misfortune, it is OK for me to force others to help me out of it even if they did nothing at all to cause that misfortune. “Your status is determined by your ability to pay” is overly money-centric, but it’s a special case of “your status is determined by your ability to get others to help you of their own individual volition”– which is indeed the libertarian endpoint, and which, imperfect though it may be, is less morally unacceptable than the alternative.

      That is why I am a libertarian– because I believe that the first and most important principle of ethics is that other people do not belong to you, not individually and not collectively, not in whole and not in part, not even a little bit. Plenty of libertarians are too optimistic about the capabilities of private institutions– true! Plenty of the traditional justifications for natural-rights propertarianism are weak– true! But I’ve not often seen people who make these critiques say whether, and why, they reject the idea of strong self-ownership. And that’s important, because strong self-ownership

      (a) is a pretty common thing libertarians believe, whatever else they may believe
      (b) is *not* the same as “rugged individualism”– it does *not* make claims about what most people are capable of, only about what they have a right to force on others
      (c) though it certainly doesn’t entail “standard” libertarianism, it militates strongly against support for anything like the welfare state we know.

      1. Thanks for the very smart comments–you make some good points.

        Let me offer a few counterpoints, though.

        Firs, I’m not sure libertarians always admit (or realize?) how eccentric their definitions of concepts like “force” or “coercion” can seem. Having your FICA tax withheld is not, to most people, prima facie the same thing as being robbed at gunpoint.

        But more fundamentally, perhaps, there’s an underlying assumption in a lot of libertarian thought that one’s holdings (income, etc.) and property are somehow “natural” or “pre-social” and that redistribution upsets this natural, spontaneous order. A more accurate view, I’d argue, is that property rights are themselves social artifacts, something that are defined and structured by law, custom, morality, politics, etc. And this definition and structuring is something that can be done in a variety of ways, no one more obviously “natural” than another. What we need are some criteria by which to evaluate them–what limits should be placed on them, how far they extend, etc.

        In other words, to say that redistribution unfairly “forces” people to help others assumes a preexisting right to a certain defined bundle of goods. I think that’s where at least some welfare-liberals (and others) will disagree with libertarians.

    2. Yeah, I find Rawls’ basic idea appealing, even though I’ve never plowed through all 500+ pages of “A Theory of Justice.”

      Incidentally, you might find Mark Rowlands’ short book “Animals Like Us” interesting. He takes a basically Rawlsian framework and extends it to include non-human animals.

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