Sunday, October 5, 2008

Labels, Labels, Labels

So I've been in the middle of an identity crisis of late, as I'm discovering that I don't believe that most of the basic tenets of libertarianism, as generally understood by the rest of the world. That is, self-ownership seems like kind of a weird way to think about things; the idea that all rights-infringements are rights-violations seems clearly wrong, as is the suggestion that rights-violations provide the only warrant for infringing on one's right to self-determination; the simple Lockean picture of property rights seems incomplete; the Non-Aggression Principle is right out...

On what grounds, then, can I coherently call myself a libertarian? The problem is not that I'm a statist, or a collectivist, or anything like that. I think it should be clear to anyone who reads this blog that I'm none of those things. But it seems like the rigidity and dogmatism that I've been fighting since this blog's creation are not the bad parts of libertarianism: they are libertarianism. Once you start breaking down the absolutist structures, libertarianism seems to blend fuzzily into what people generally think of as liberalism. So what makes me a libertarian and not a liberal? At this point, I'm really not sure.

But I've been thinking for a while about the idea of actually starting to work out a way of thinking about ethical problems which incorporates the different points of view I've been exposed to, and I think it may be worthy of a new label: respectarianism (the accent is on the first syllable). So from now on, I'm a respectarian. Eat that, categorizers of the world.

Anyone who's followed my work should have a pretty decent idea of what sort of view it's going to end up being, so if anyone wants in, shout me a holler!


Anonymous said...

You read my mind. I come from an egalitarian mindset but I'm studying left-libertarianism to see what I can learn. I just finished reading Rad Geek's essay on thick libertarianism and I was left wondering exactly what the point was of being libertarian at all then? You could take his frame work and essentially make of libertarianism just about any philosophy you wanted. Why hold so tightly to the non-aggression principle if you are going to make exceptions for it later?

Basically, why don't left-libertarians just become liberal egalitarians? It would require so much less dancing and twisting to get everything to fit.

If you honestly believe in certain outcomes being better than others, how can you be so stubborn about things like taxes being theft no matter what, no way, no how, not going to debate it? Rad Geek seems to encourage voluntary pressure techniques like boycotts or ridicule but couldn't even dream that we might all decide that something is worth passing a law about and enforcing it. Gov'mint is bad but voluntary associations with guns is good? I don't get it. In the end someone gets shot either way. He wants to reject racism but feels powerless to stop it coercively because that would violate non-aggression. As someone said recently but I forget where "some social orders, like those that abuse women, aren't worth saving". I can't bring myself to disagree and so I can't truly say that a government that is tasked with that duty really bothers me.

Liberty above all else, even justice seems so odd to me, especially when you care so much about justice as the left-libertarian world claims. Liberals to me are starting to seem like left-libertarians who got real and decided to do something useful to get to where they wanted to go.

I don't mean to rant but as I make an effort to give left-libertarianism a chance, I keep coming back to the thought that people are never really free so this obsession with achieving the impossible seems like an exercise in frustration. They are only more free to libertarians because of the way freedom is defined and that is typically circular in most of their arguments. Freedom is whatever come from just actions and just actions are those made in an atmosphere of freedom.

But freedom to me rests on positive liberty. If I can contract equally or if my options are constrained by your free actions, then I'm sorry but I'm less free. I haven't yet found any idea better than redistributive justice to settle that matter. If you have property then I can't have it. It may be just that I can't have it depending on your theory of justice but it certainly isn't total freedom. So why then are taxes if levied in a way that is consistent with justice (however defined) always bad?

Rad Geek hints at that possibility of inequality through just actions when he mentions people gaining disproportionate power in a free market but dismisses it on the grounds that it's unlikely. Well unlikely is not impossible. I don't want to build a philosophy on "unlikely". I want truth.

Can you talk me down and tell me why I'm unjustified in feeling this way? Or are you on the same path?

Danny Shahar said...

Neverfox, I think your concerns are valid ones. I do believe, though, that we might be coming at this from fundamentally different angles, in the sense that you appear to be in favor of equality of outcomes.

I don't believe that it would be legitimate to justify constraining individuals in their pursuit of their own ends on the grounds that others have difficulty in achieving the same level of wellbeing or wealth as them. That is to say, I don't believe that someone's personal success should make them any more beholden to others, except perhaps in the sense that the cost of helping others might go down for them, and so their moral obligation to help might therefore be increased.

The fruits of our efforts and projects are, I think, rightly ours, and it doesn't seem to me that anyone has a right to them. So I think that sets me apart from liberal egalitarians who would argue that my success was simply a matter of circumstantial luck, and I do not deserve what I have in any morally significant sense.

So I guess the question for me would be where you come down on that issue, which I think fundamentally distinguishes left-libertarianism from liberal egalitarianism. If you disagree with me and believe that individuals have no right to the products of their successes, given that there are others out there who cannot reach the same level of happiness on their own, then I do think that you would be hard-pressed to justify calling yourself a libertarian in any significant sense of the word.

That, of course, would not be a condemnation; I only mean to say that liberal egalitarianism seems like a very different paradigm from any libertarian view, and I'm not sure how they could coherently be reconciled.

Anonymous said...

I think egalitarianism can concern itself with equality of opportunity or outcome. Rawls for instance was clear that equality of outcome wasn't the goal. I don't agree with Rawls on many things but I do have a concern for equality because I think true freedom is impossible without some degree of it. My concern with libertarianism is that that equality, even of opportunity, is an afterthought in most defenses of it that I come across.

I'd say my real principle is equality of the number and nature of options. This however shouldn't mean exact equality in every aspect, of course, but rather if this bundle of options where weighed they would balance. In other words, it's not just the rules of the game that matter but also the assets of the players because those assets could change the rules of the game if they create monopolies of power.

I agree that keeping the fruits of labor seems intuitively attractive and that's why I still give an ear to libertarianism and seek within anything valuable I might find. But I do see an irony in it as a philosophy. Libertarianism does in fact restrict freedom because it would be unjust if I took your property without your permission if I wanted to. The reality is that they have buckets for different types of freedom with some types (like stealing) being denied. I'm not arguing for stealing but merely pointing out that if they find reasons to define the limits of freedom, why do they draw the line where they do and not where, say egalitarians do?

But redistribution doesn't have to be because people are "beholden" or "don't deserve" wealth. It could rather be because by limiting freedom in some ways, we might actually increase overall freedom. Isn't increased freedom something that libertarians can get behind? The focus on each individual's freedom might miss the forest for the trees. This is similar to the argument about market externalities. There is always a third party that might be affected and you might be that third party, so consider it a hedge to give up some certain types of freedom (like unlimited wealth).

As for luck, I don't see it as absolutely the cause but it plays a bigger role than most think (read Nassim Taleb's Black Swan or Fooled by Randomness). Also, some luck is obvious such as being born into the right circumstances relative to someone else. That's luck in its purest form.

So I must ask you then, if you truly have doubts about some of the basic core principles that libertarianism springs from (self-ownership, NAP etc.), what then is your theoretical basis for not believing "that it would be legitimate to justify constraining individuals in their pursuit of their own ends on the grounds that others have difficulty in achieving the same level of wellbeing or wealth as them"? Can this be logically derived without those things? This may help me understand how I can integrate some aspects of libertarianism into my view since I also have doubts about self-ownership and NAP.

Danny Shahar said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to get around to responding to your comments; I really wanted to give your concerns the attention they deserve, and it's been sort of a crazy week. But I'm working on a response, which will appear as its own post soon, and I'll post a link here when I'm finished. Thanks for your interest and your thoughtful remarks!

Danny said...

Here's that response!

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