Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Libertarian Logic

by Drew Van't Land


Editor's Note: Throughout all the debates and campaigning done during the Canadian election, and those that continue in the United States, one issue remains consistently at the fore: the economy. Though philosophers talking about economics is often a recipe for misunderstandings and misrepresentations, it is also the case that, as Reformational philosophy long ago recognized, the modes of life are interconnected, which means economics is not a discourse internal to itself but contains a variety of presuppositions which can be illuminated through other discourses. In this post, ICS Alumnus Drew Van't Land takes on the philosophical foundations of a certain form of libertarian thinking about economics in order to see if the kind of philosophical anthropology that undergirds libertarianism stands up to such scrutiny. With economics at the forefront of contemporary political debates, a philosophical investigation of a view that generally promotes the freedom of the economy over and against political restrictions of the economy is especially timely.

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete,
and often in a purely rational sense… his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.”
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Libertarianism is the contemporary classification for a political philosophy which used to be called (classical) liberalism, but is now associated more with conservatism (though it is anything but). And I should know; I used to count among their number: until this year, I was still technically registered as a Libertarian (though it's been years since I've voted that way). The last thing that libertarians could be accused of is inconsistency. Their political reasoning is airtight:

1. People should be free.
2. Power inhibits freedom.
3. Therefore the government should have as little power as possible.

However, the scope of this syllogism is not wide enough to embrace the complex modes of meaning which animate our socio-political being. The real significance of this political argument rests on three load-bearing assumptions, which are highly contestable upon the realization that their definitions have been loaded from the start.

...the scope of this syllogism is not wide enough to embrace the complex modes of meaning which animate our socio-political being.

First of all, libertarians are committed to (wait for it…) liberty. This is typically understood as freedom from interference, space to be one's self, being left alone – in a word, independence. However, this is a rather narrow understanding of liberty, considered from a historical viewpoint. An older notion of freedom involved not simply the removal of obstacles to one's willed desires, but also the ability to pursue the goods which actualized one's potential. This is positive liberty, freedom for some purposeful activity: in a word, agency. Libertarians tend to ignore the complex conditions under which a person can actually act freely.

Secondly, libertarians are suspicious of power. This assumption is actually shared by conservatives and liberal progressives (if not all humans everywhere), which shouldn't surprise us: after all, America's founding myth is an underdog story of throwing off the shackles of colonial tyranny. Most of the founding fathers' political debates revolved around how to organize power in a counterbalancing way, instituting checks and balances in the American constitutional framework to avoid any political assemblages from overpowering others. However, as with “freedom” this definition of “power” is rather shallow. This is no coincidence, because these two (insufficient) definitions are in fact conceptual counterparts: freedom is defined as the absence of external power, and power is defined as the infringement upon freedom. The libertarian understanding of power (unnecessarily) presupposes that this agential ability is necessarily self-interested, competitive, hierarchical, and tyrannical: in a word, domination. This notion of power unnecessarily presupposes a zero-sum game: either I act, or you act, but we can't meaningfully act together. However, this myopically overlooks a far deeper source of power which issues from social solidarity and communal collaboration: in a word, cooperation. This synergic notion recalls that power is ultimately just “potential”, the ability to do something. And surely we can do more together than we can alone.

This synergic notion recalls that power is ultimately just “potential”, the ability to do something. And surely we can do more together than we can alone.

Finally, libertarians assume that the government is the only social institution which features power dynamics (in the dominative sense). Unlike conservatives, libertarians are attuned to the oppression which can systemically inhere in families and religious communities (which often, tragically, goes unobserved because of its private nature). But libertarians typically stop short of admitting that power differentials in the business world (their heroic counterpart to the villainous government) lend themselves readily to abuse. This is perhaps libertarians' most baffling oversight, and I think it stems from an overly materialistic definition of power (encapsulated by Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous dictum “My right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins”). Of course, the most dramatic illustrations of power-violence are bone-crushingly, blood-spillingly physical. But libertarians tend to ignore the ways in which people can be oppressed by non-physical power: social norms, threats, internalized (“superego”) pressure, bureaucratic protocol, symbolic/ linguistic manipulation, etc. As an institution, the government scarcely has a monopoly on these forms of coercion.

Despite the Chesterton quote with which I began, I don't really think that libertarians are madwomen/men. Libertarians aren't irrational: their political philosophy is clear and consistent. But it's just not comprehensive enough to cover all the important ways in which human freedom should be empowered by a government of, by, and for all God's people.

Drew Van't Land (ICS MA '14) is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He studies the creative retrieval of ancient Greek thought in Continental social and political philosophy. He lives with his family in Lexington, KY.

12 comments:

  1. "Of course, the most dramatic illustrations of power-violence are bone-crushingly, blood-spillingly physical. But libertarians tend to ignore the ways in which people can be oppressed by non-physical power: social norms, threats, internalized (“superego”) pressure, bureaucratic protocol, symbolic/ linguistic manipulation, etc. As an institution, the government scarcely has a monopoly on these forms of coercion."

    Of course, this is not to deny that global turbo-capitalism is more than capable of bone crushing and blood spilling, right?

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  2. (Oops... commented under my wife's name :)

    This might just be a quibble, but I'm not seeing how the syllogism as stated above is valid, must less sound. Shouldn't we state it differently? Maybe something like:

    1. A society in which all relationships between individuals are voluntary is a free society.
    2. A market-based society is a society in which all relationships between individuals are voluntary.
    3. (conclusion from 1 and 2) Therefore a market-based society is a free society.

    4. But a free society is the best society.
    5. (conclusion from 3 and 4) Therefore a market-based society is the best society.

    When stated this way, it seems to me that you could accept (1) for the sake of argument, but then (4) would be false. Alternatively, you could just reject (1) from the outset.


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    1. I would reject premise 2 as invalid on empirical grounds, as a market-based society often unwillingly ensnares people who lack the means to participate, resulting in their most unfree treatment as means rather than ends. But there are probably all kinds of logical problems and unstated premises in the previous statement.

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    2. I mean, yeah, that sounds right to me in principle. But I guess the libertarian point that Drew does a good job of flagging is that the people who lack the means to participate well in the marketplace are still "free" in the libertarian sense.

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    3. Well, yeah, but Drew's larger point is that the libertarian understanding of freedom is wanting, if not meaningless, and that we need to have a more positive understanding of freedom as capacity and agency (freedom-for). But even on the libertarian understanding, the 'free' market imposes as many obstacles to participation as it removes.

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    4. Right, exactly. That's how I understand Drew: i.e. that "the libertarian understanding of freedom is wanting."

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    5. OK. Let's find something to argue about that we actually disagree on!

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Ron, you're absolutely right - I forgot to include the other side of that dyad (business' material violence as well as government non-physical violence).

    Josh, you're right to point out the invalidity of the syllogism which I presented - it's technically an enthymeme of sorts since I suppressed the premise connecting government to power for the sake of triadic elegance and simplicity.

    Thanks for your responses!

    - Drew

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    1. Apologies for my pedantry. You display characteristic depth and insight here.

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  5. You miss the point when you say that libertarianism opposes power. In reality, it opposes centralized coercive control, which in today's world mostly comes from government. While government is clearly not the only social institution that can use power, it is the only one that has a monopoly on the legal use of coercive force today.

    "This notion of power unnecessarily presupposes a zero-sum game: either I act, or you act, but we can't meaningfully act together", does not in any way represent the classical liberal perspective. Non-coerced cooperation in fact resides at it's heart. That's what liberty is.

    Since this misunderstanding seems to be the core of the argument, I can't see how your conclusions will be anything but misguided.


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    1. I take it that Drew's point about "power" is precisely the rejection of the point made in your reply: namely, "coercive control . . . in today's world mostly comes from government." If you narrow the meaning of "coercive control" in such a way as to limit it to government, then you've got reductionism. It's just not an interesting category for analyzing social phenomena at that point.

      As for the point about the zero-sum game, it is absolutely one of the "cornerstones" of the libertarianism (see link below) that Drew is describing: "only individuals act." If this is true, then there is no such thing as social agency, which is what Drew means (I assume) by "meaningfully act[ing] together."

      http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/AustrianEconomics.html

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