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.
*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.


The Christian politics of Mark O. Hatfield

Former senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon passed away this week at the age of 89. He was one of the last of the liberal Republicans–someone who bucked his party on many issues.

But Hatfield wasn’t simply a liberal Republican in the Nelson Rockefeller mold. He was a devout evangelical Christian, a virtual pacifist, and a “seamless garment” pro-lifer who opposed abortion and capital punishment.

Hatfield played an important role in the rise of the nascent evangelical Left in the ’70s. This article from Religion Dispatches describes his unique political outlook:

Hatfield did not embody the evangelical left perfectly; he was, after all, an anti-New Deal fiscal conservative in the Republican Party. But he pursued its unorthodox agenda in most respects. He was an unambiguous social conservative on abortion, but against capital punishment. He was an anti-war environmentalist. His populist call for “genuine political, economic, and ecological self-determination” meant reducing “excessive concentration of power” everywhere—not only in the executive branch of government and labor unions, but also in big corporations and the military.

At Reason magazine, Jesse Walker points out that Hatfield once expressed sympathy with the ultra-libertarianism of economist Murray Rothbard, even reading one of Rothbard’s articles into the Congressional Record. Hatfield was so admired on the Right and the Left that both George McGovern and Richard Nixon considered him as a potential running mate!

Hatfield’s outlook seemed to be equal parts evangelical Christianity and New Left counterculturalism. I’m not sure what larger lessons should be drawn from this except to note that there were times when the boundaries between Left and Right seemed much more fluid then they are now, and the role of Christianity in U.S. politics was up for grabs. An alternate history where the most influential version of Christian politics was decentralist, anti-war, environmentalist, and consistently pro-life would certainly be an interesting one.

Friday Links

–Ludwig von Mises versus Christianity.

–20-plus years of Willie Nelson’s political endorsements.

–The media has stopped covering the unemployement crisis.

–The Stockholm Syndrome theory of long novels.

–An interview with Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City.

–Why universal salvation is an evangelical option.

–A debate over Intelligent Design ensares an academic journal of philosophy.

–Goodbye birtherism, hello “otherism“?

–Chain restaurants try to adapt to the classic-cocktail renaissance.

–Everything you need to know about the apocalypse.

Friday Links

–A challenge to libertarians on the coecivene power of private entities.

–A.O. Scott on superhero movies as a Ponzi scheme.

–Richard Beck of Experimental Theology on why he blogs.

–A political typology quiz from the Pew Research Center. (I scored as a “solid libera.l” Although I’d take issue with the way some of the choices were presented.)

–An end to “bad guys.”

–Def Leppard’s Hysteria and the changing meaning of having a “number 1” album.

–The folks at the Moral Mindfield have been blogging on the ethical implications of killing bin Laden, from a variety of perspectives.

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Abraham Lincoln and slavery.

–Marvin had a good post earlier this week on the death of bin Laden and Christian pacifism.

–Christopher has a post on problems with the language of “inclusion” and “exclusion” in the church.

–I don’t always agree with Glenn Greenwald, but I’m glad he’s out there asking the questions he asks. He’s been blogging up a storm this week on the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death.

–Brandon has a concise summary of the history behind Cinco de Mayo.

ADDED LATER: How do you feed 10 billion people? By eating less meat for starters.

Friday Links

–Iowa’s House approved a bill to make it illegal to film the goings on in factory farms; it still has to pass the Senate.

–The great Midwestern backlash.

–What is the difference between liberals and libertarians?

–Rejecting death-centered Christianity.

–The fondness some secular liberals have for fundamentalism.

–More than half of Americans now favor legal gay marriage.

–On Catholic scholar John Meier’s version of the historical Jesus.

–George Scialabba on Adam Smith.

–Fred Clark (a.k.a. the Slacktivist) on John Woolman, 18th-century itinerant Quaker preacher and abolitionist. (I’ve come across references to Woolman in multiple books I’ve read lately.)

–An interview with Tim Minear, who co-created Firefly with Joss Whedon and had a major hand in Angel (the Buffy spin-off and an excellent show in its own right). Plus: Joss Whedon 101: Serenity.

–Jeremy reviews Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins (which, by his account, doesn’t sound all that scandalous or unorthodox to me).


–Nine daily rituals to increase mindfulness.

–The theology of “The Adjustment Bureau.”

Whither the liberal-libertarian alliance?

Here’s an interesting post from the new(ish) blog Bleeding-Heart Libertarians:

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.

Some links for the weekend

– Peter Singer on balancing concern for the environment with efforts to lift people out of poverty.

– Kevin Drum on the difference between liberals and libertarians.

– Bob Herbert on Sargent Shriver: “one of America’s great good men.”

– Peter Berger’s blog at The American Interest. (Here’s a piece on recent developments in American Lutheranism.)

– A three-part article from Derek on communing the unbaptized:1|2|3.

– Bls says the church needs a program. (Or does it already have one?)

– How Moby-Dick navigates between fanaticism and nihilism. And a previous piece on a similar topic by the same author.

– A killer new song from the German tech-death band Obscura.