Friday, July 08, 2022

The Meaning of "Libertarian: A Question

Consider two hypothetical Christians. Christian A considers himself a libertarian, does not believe in the initiation of coercion, believes in property rights. He believes, however, that God, having created everything, is the rightful owner of everything. God has authorized rulers to collect taxes, censor writings, ban drugs and prostitution, enforce slavery. None of that, he will explain, is an initiation of coercion, just the enforcement of God's legitimate property rights.

Christian B does not consider himself a libertarian; if God told him to kill or enslave people he would willingly obey. He believes, however, is that God's purposes will best be achieved in a libertarian society. The opportunity to sin with a prostitute will let the virtuous strengthen their virtue by resisting temptation, the truly sinful proceed on their way to Hell; prostitution should be legal. He wants to free slaves in order to let them work out their own salvation or damnation.

Christian A believes in libertarian arguments but not in libertarian conclusions, Christian B the opposite. Which is more libertarian?

Christian A is imaginary but there are libertarian philosophers, such as the Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the left or Hans Hoppe on the right, who offer what they believe to be libertarian arguments for conclusions, such as income redistribution or immigration restrictions, that most libertarians consider inconsistent with libertarianism. 

If justice really requires transfers from rich to poor or states have the right and obligation to restrict immigration in order to protect the rights of their citizens, the people who believe those things are libertarians, indeed better libertarians than we are. But if they are wrong, as I believe they are, do those conclusions make them less libertarian? What does “libertarian,” predicated of a person or a conclusion, mean?

I, arguably, am Christian B. A very long time ago I found it necessary to join the Free Libertarian Party of New York in order to attend a libertarian event. Doing so required me to “certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.” I footnoted my signature with something to the effect that the statement was a simplified version of my actual position. The footnote was necessary because, although I do not currently advocate any initiation of force, I can imagine circumstances in which I would. Some are described in Chapters 41 and 42 of The Machinery of Freedom.

Many libertarians believe that they have derived  their libertarian conclusions from the non-aggression postulate. That is not where I got mine. Does that mean I am not really a libertarian or that I, like Christian B, am a libertarian with different arguments but libertarian conclusions?

A possible answer is that what matters is where the arguments lead. If, as some have argued, my position could be used as easily to argue for statist conclusions, that is a reason to consider me, if not a statist, at least a dangerous influence on libertarianism. If the arguments that Hoppe offers for immigration restrictions could be applied as well to almost any restriction of individual liberty favored by Hoppe and the current right, that is a reason to consider him a dangerous influence on libertarianism. 

As I do.



20 comments:

Trey said...

I have read your blog for many more years than I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints. Have you ever studied our Church? You may find, as I have, our theology and practices to be highly libertarian, in thought surely, if not always in the practices of our members.

David Friedman said...

I know a little about the LDS — one of the students in my legal systems very different seminar wrote a paper on their legal system — but not a lot.

Arqiduka said...

The NAP isn't the only source from whence libertarianism flows, although it may be where by far the largest river originates. Libertarianism can be as simple (and as nebulous) as saying "all else equal, maximise individual freedom" or "you should place a higher burden of proof on arguments that lead to more intervention".

What I'm trying to say is that Hoppe's arguments, weak as they may be, may be a legalistic tweak on NAP-derived frameworks, but not libertarianism per se. A minor point (AFAIK Hoppe still links his thought to the NAP), but you can’t eject one from all libertarianism on this basis.

Country Farmer said...

I like Dr. Huemer's take on a non-deontological NAP: the Non-Aggression Presumption

Joe G said...

Interesting question! One answer that occurs to me is that the terms for all ideologies tend to be quite broad and encompass multiple elements, addressing many different kinds of questions usually in a mutually reinforcing way.

In the case of libertarianism, the broad concept addresses both underlying theory and outcomes. This supports my intuition that neither of the hypothetical Christians you describe are entirely libertarian, and that Christian A isn't really libertarian at all. Not just because the outcomes he believes in aren't libertarian but because I don't even think his theory is fully libertarian. Even libertarians who believe in absolute property rights would normally caveat this with some requirement that the property be at least somewhat legitimately-acquired. Otherwise, a nominal libertarian could just declare governments to be the actual owners of all property and support all government action on the basis of absolute property rights. Radically divergent conceptions of the idea of property rights from the standard libertarian conception - such as the idea that God owns all property - are implicitly different to libertarian ideas of private property, even in theory.

As for Christian B I think he's probably somewhat libertarian, albeit possibly unreliably so. Anyone who believes in standard libertarian outcomes in practice almost certainly has a theory with at least some libertarian elements and Christian B's theoretical justifications do sound somewhat like a strangely God-fearing modification of libertarian ideas.

This idea, the distinction between an ideology's underlying theory/justification and its expected outcomes, reminds me of a phenomenon among socialists. Socialists often play a goalpost-shifting game, where they disavow all explicitly socialist projects that end in disaster by saying "That wasn't real socialism!".

They exploit this exact distinction between theory and outcomes. They basically say: "I define a socialist system to be a system where everyone is fulfilled, prosperous and equal, this system is a horrific dictatorship where people are starving, therefore it isn't real socialism". By focusing exclusively on outcomes, they make their socialist ideology unfalsifiable, they essentially believe that socialism can't fail by definition because if it fails it becomes "Not real socialism".

Usually an ideology's underlying theory and its outcomes are meant to complement each other, when they don't that's unusual, and would surely normally be seen as discrediting that ideology - to coin a term, this could be called justification-outcome dissonance. An ideology suffers from justification-outcome dissonance when its justification seems to be based on principles that are undermined by the application of that ideology in practice.

Joe G said...

There may also be an element of circularity here. If person A says to person B: "You use libertarian theory, but you reach conclusions which heavily restrict freedom, therefore you aren't libertarian" then surely person A must have used some libertarian theory of freedom to assess person B's conclusions, and found them wanting when compared to that theoretical standard. The outcomes can discredit the theory even as the theory must be used to judge the outcomes.

Anonymous said...

I have found it useful in my own head to distinguish between libertarians of a broadly deontological inclinations mostly of the non aggression principal type, from libertarians of a consequantilist inclination. (Leaving an other category which seems smaller than the other two)

If libertarianism is a set of policy positions, almost any arguement in favour relying on anything, with the possible exception of pure mathematics, could be turned against libertarianism if the facts on which it relies turn out different. Leaving only the intrinsic desire for those policies, which creates no arguement to sway people to libertarianism.

naivetheorist said...

Hoppe is not a libertarian. he does not believe in the NAP.he has stated:

“no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very covenant of preserving and protecting private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and removed from society.”

Both Hoppe and Rothbard (and Rockwell) have self-identified as pasleo-libertarians and have advocated positions much closer to the alt-right than to libertarianism.

Anonymous said...

《An ideology suffers from justification-outcome dissonance when its justification seems to be based on principles that are undermined by the application of that ideology in practice.》

What happened to the Lockean Proviso? Why do I feel coerced into participating in libertarianism? Why has the application of libertarianism in practice resulted in all commons being enclosed so I no longer have an escape from forced participation in markets?

《If justice really requires transfers from rich to poor》

Why isn't an inflation-proofed, generous, money-printed, universal basic income a better idea than transfers?

David Friedman said...

@Joe:
"Even libertarians who believe in absolute property rights would normally caveat this with some requirement that the property be at least somewhat legitimately-acquired."

Christian A's view is that God legitimately acquired all the property by creating it. The idea that if you create something it belongs to you is a normal part of libertarianism.

David Friedman said...

@NaiveTheorist:
I don't think Hoppe ever makes it clear whether quotes like that describe rules that would apply to all of a libertarian society or rules that a proprietary community within a libertarian society would choose to impose on its residents. The latter doesn't violate the NAP.

naivetheorist said...

.societies don't choose to do anything. society is an ill-defined concept. as margaret thatcher said, "there is no such thing as society"). only individuals or groups of individuals decide anything

Joe G said...

David, you say:

"Christian A's view is that God legitimately acquired all the property by creating it. The idea that if you create something it belongs to you is a normal part of libertarianism."

True, I should have said legitimately-acquired based on standard libertarian accounts of legitimate acquisition. I still think that a radically divergent idea of property rights to the standard libertarian one is implicitly non-libertarian, even in theory. The idea that if you create something it belongs to you is generally considered justified by libertarians because you mixed your labour with it. This reasoning doesn't apply to creation of something out of nothing by a supreme being - the concept of labour as understood by humans wouldn't apply to such a being, and the libertarian account doesn't address the power to create something out of nothing by simply willing that it be so. As such, I think that while God owning all property may seem to conform with libertarian rules, it doesn't really, because concepts like 'ownership' and 'labour' either don't apply to God, or don't apply in anything like the same way as they do to humans.

I do get what the hypothetical is trying to illustrate though - an ideology might appear to conform to libertarian rules while seemingly leading to very non-libertarian outcomes. But as with the God example, in the case of many if not all of those ideologies they probably only appear to conform to libertarian rules, and actually implicitly contradict those rules.

Joe G said...

An anonymous commenter said:

"What happened to the Lockean Proviso? Why do I feel coerced into participating in libertarianism? Why has the application of libertarianism in practice resulted in all commons being enclosed so I no longer have an escape from forced participation in markets?"

The initial acquisition of property is a tricky issue for libertarianism, and the Lockean proviso is one way to address it. But as for your claim that private property ownership "force[s]" you to participate in markets, that's not really true. What you seem to be implying is that you would be terribly deprived if you didn't participate in markets, so you are 'forced' to participate in them.

This isn't the way libertarians understand 'force' - you are never forced to do anything solely through other people's inaction (in your case, not providing you with a non-market-based way to satisfy your wants) only through their actions. And no libertarian account would have you forced to participate in markets in this sense. There is good reason to define 'force' in this way. Definitions of force which describe people being 'forced' through others' inaction imply that force of some kind is inevitable in many situations - the only way to counter one kind of force is with another.

If you can be 'forced' to go hungry because nobody provides you with food, the only way to counter this would be to force people to provide you with food - so this definition of force is a contradiction. This is why the libertarian understanding of 'force' only applies to other people's actions, not their inaction or inability to accommodate your wants.

It's probably fine to use 'force' in multiple ways which contradict each other in casual conversation, but in political philosophy terms should be used with precision. This isn't even fundamentally about what is moral: maybe it is moral, or even morally required, to use force to provide for people. But in describing different moral perspectives, it is important to use precise, non-contradictory terminology.

David Friedman said...

"But as with the God example, in the case of many if not all of those ideologies they probably only appear to conform to libertarian rules, and actually implicitly contradict those rules."

That's my view of Hoppe. But I could be wrong.

Anonymous said...

《What you seem to be implying is that you would be terribly deprived if you didn't participate in markets, so you are 'forced' to participate in them.》

Isn't enclosure backed by literal force? If I want to sleep outside on common land for free rather than participate in rental or housing markets, but the cops arrest me because everything is enclosed now ("No trespassing" signs on public property), how is that not literally being forced to participate in markets?

Joe G said...

The anonymous commenter replied:

"Isn't enclosure backed by literal force? If I want to sleep outside on common land for free rather than participate in rental or housing markets, but the cops arrest me because everything is enclosed now ("No trespassing" signs on public property), how is that not literally being forced to participate in markets?"

This is indeed a tricky issue, but in this circumstance you are being forced off property rather than forced to participate in markets. If nobody then voluntarily provides you with a place to sleep you may feel you have to participate in markets, but this is the same situation as being 'forced' to go hungry because nobody provides you with food - not actually 'forced' in the libertarian understanding of the term.

Joe G said...

"That's my view of Hoppe. But I could be wrong."

Where do you think Hoppe's ideology implicitly contradicts libertarian rules? (not defending Hoppe here just interested)

Anonymous said...

《you may feel you have to participate in markets,》

Or go to jail?

Without the Lockean Proviso, isn't Libertarianism just might makes right?

Joe G said...

Anonymous commenter:

"Without the Lockean Proviso, isn't Libertarianism just might makes right?"

No, because there are good reasons for private land ownership even in the absence of unclaimed land that those without land can claim, it isn't simply based on 'might'.