Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sinclair and that Libertarian cartoon

Matthew Sinclair has a reasoned comment on the animation on libertarianism that I published a few days ago. Really, do go and read his whole post, because it is neatly written and argued and, though I disagree with him, it is a pleasure to read.
I've been meaning to write about this particular animation for quite some time for a simple reason; it killed my libertarianism.

To be fair my sense of myself as a libertarian had always been precarious. I am of a moderate temperament and could never quite stir myself to the indignation that appears necessary for such a radical philosophy. Libertarianism has to be radical as anyone who calls themselves a libertarian but doesn't verge on anarcho-capitalism is just trying to feel "dangerous" without any real risk; they're listening to gangster rap while stuck in traffic on the M6.

This is not something that I necessarily agree with; one must argue that libertarianism is a philosophy and, like any other philosophy, must submit to the art of the possible. So, whilst one can believe that libertarianism is the ideal, anyone who is aware of what is possible must be prepared to dilute their ideal.
However, what began to bug at me was the effect that the contradiction at the heart of libertarianism tends to have on its adherents. The contradiction is this: If you believe that the principles in this cartoon are true then you cannot use state power, which always equals slavery and violence, to any end as this would be morally wrong.

But this cartoon does not say that state power "always equals slavery and violence"; it does say that any attempt to forcibly or fraudulently remove life, liberty or rightfully aquired property is wrong, even when people in fine hats do it, that is true. But, when we elect a government, we effectively make a pact that we will allow them to take some of our property in order to do those things that we as individuals cannot. The elections are, effectively, our way of ensuring that this pact continues to be renewed in whatever form; practicality demands that we do not make it for too short a time and principles of legitimacy preclude it being for ever*.
However, property rights are not rights unless there is some means of enforcement to prevent infringements. That immediately kills the moral simplicity this cartoon is trying to establish. In the society this cartoon seeks to create property rights would not be rights but rather a privilege conferred by popular whim and vulnerable to death by free rider effects.

Not so. The principles of the cartoon state that you have the right to protect your life, liberty and property from those who would wrongfully take them and "you may also ask others to help you to defend you". Now, you can actually argue that what we do is precisely this.

We recruit a judiciary, a police force and a government to help us to protect those property rights: they willingly do so for we, as a society, recompense them for their energy and skills by giving them property (usually in the form of money). Thus, both sides gain and you have what is, in effect, a willing exchange of property resulting in both sides being better off (otherwise, as the cartoon says, we "wouldn't do it").

But, just as no one else has the right to forcibly or fraudulently remove your life, liberty or property, you have no right to initiate aggression against anyone else and nor do the leaders whom you have appointed: you cannot confer upon your leaders rights that you, yourself, do not have.
Most libertarians get over this by the simple device of the night watchman state; property rights violations are okay so long as they are that minimum required to defend property rights. The problem is that in doing so they instantly lose the claim to having an absolute principle and libertarianism loses its moral certainty.

This is hardly a cop-out; the cartoon says that you have the right to defend youself and your property but you do not have the right to initiate aggression against others. So, yes, property rights violations are fine as long as they are, indeed, the "minimum required to defend property rights". However, what is needed is a judge to arbitrate on what the minimum is and this is, indeed, what we do.

I can see Matthew's points though; the old spectre of drugs raises its head as does education; however, it must be remembered that people choose to take drugs and they choose not to educate themselves. In the society in which we currently live, in fact, you have to make an active choice to seek illegal drugs (and the fact that they are illegal shows that society considers them dangerous) and you have to make an active choice to play truant from school (the fact that this is also illegal shows that, yup, society considers it to be a bad thing, dangerous even, to be ignorant and uneducated).
However, it was when I saw that cartoon and saw the sheer folly of a utopia where libertarianism leaves the defence of liberalism to ad hoc popular whim that I realised it was no longer a useful term in describing what I thought of the world.

But it does not do so.

As far as I am concerned, the pure philosophy of libertarianism very simple: libertarianism allows you to work under any rule
  1. You own your life and what you at liberty to with it what you will, i.e. if you decide to piss it away on drugs then you can.

  2. You are at liberty to own property and to decide by what means you may earn that property as constrained by the laws that everyone has set up and agreed to, i.e. you cannot steal it.

  3. All free societies are based on the voluntary, mutual exchange of property (which may be in the form of time, skills, money, whatever.

  4. You have the right to defend your rightfully acquired property, or to ask others to help you in defending that property but you may not, in return, initiate aggression against anyone else's rightfully acquired property.

What we have done, in order to make this pure philosophy work within a society is to set up a framework of universal rules which everyone understands: we call this framework "law". As a society, we voluntarily pay certain individuals to adjudicate according to the law that we, as individuals acting as a collective, have set up to protect these basic freedoms.

None of this seems to be particularly contradictory and, further, libertarianism, in stark contrast to communism or even, really, less extreme forms of socialism, works because it is based on nature: humans are, fundamentally, selfish creatures. A little while ago, when fisking Polly, I wrote the following.
Can you not see the stupity inherent in formulating policy that does not rely on people being quinessentially selfish, Pol? That was the basis of Communism, and it was why Communism failed: because people are selfish. This is why we have to force tax from people rather than relying on their good nature and asking them to donate it. It is such a basic thing, Polly, really it is, that I am surprised that you have taken so many years to realise it. Far better to have a good idea of how individuals behave and then try to build a society around that, rather than attempt to force individuals to behave entirely altruistically when it is fundamentally against their nature to do so.

Libertarianism, as philosophy based on people trading only to their advantage recognises this fundamental truism: as such, libertarianism—whilst the purity of the philosophy may have to be diluted on a practical level—is not only a system by which to live: libertarianism actually describes the quintessential nature of man.



* It could be argued that current hegemony of centrist parties in Britain at present is, in fact, deeply unlibertarian for, in our current system, there is no real choice and thus no opportunity to elect anything other than quasi-socialists. However, were people to rebel sufficiently, of course, this state of affairs could change.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."Edmund Burke**

** One of the earliest instances of this sentiment is attributed to Plato: "The penalty for not participating in government is to be governed by your inferiors." If by "inferior" we mean "morally worse", then we can argue that he actually means "evil". Even if he only meant "ignorant", since Plato also said, "There is only one good, which is knowledge, and one evil, which is ignorance" then it still means "evil".

Given the importance of politics in Plato's Athens, the phrase "not participating in government" may be translated as meaning "doing nothing." Thus we can re-write Plato's aphorism thusly:
"The penalty for doing nothing is to be ruled by evil."

Which, of course, is remarkably similar to Burke's sentiment.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

This is not a propos of anything particularly; I just thought it interesting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But some of those stick men are bigger than others...

The very model of a modern scientific man

Your humble Devil was thoroughly amused by Neil Ferguson's fall from grace, and is very pleased to have found the time to outline Fergus...