Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Free To Be You and Me...Well, at Least Me

Justin asks,

In a previous blog post, you mentioned how libertarian arguments fail to take into account "the realities of context" and I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on this. It seems to me that many college students and recent grads are labeling themselves "libertarians" rather than republicans, as many of them consider themselves fiscally conservative but socially liberal (gay marriage, pro-choice, etc). Some have tried to "convert" me, but I'd like to get a more critical perspective.
I am so glad you brought this back up Justin because I fully intended to devote a post to it, but, to be honest, forgot.

You've got a couple of things packed into your question. First, it is absolutely true that the term "libertarian" is adopted by many who are not. Republicans who for whatever reason are shy about calling themselves conservative, love to say they are libertarian, but really aren't.

But the interesting case is when you look at the arguments of those who truly are libertarians. It is a view that arises from consideration of the question, "how ought we arrange society to maximize human flourishing?" Libertarians argue that maximum individual freedom leads to the best lived human life. We need authority or government only to enforce contracts and keep order...and even the degree to which that that second condition is enforced is not universal amongst them. The key notion here is that we are dealing with a very bare-bones rights-based approach in which the individual is primary and can be maximally creative when given the fewest constraints.

There is no doubt that liberty is a wonderful thing and that freedom ought to be sought for individuals. But the flaw comes when it is held as an end and not a means, when we realize that it is a good, but not the sole good.

Consider a different, but similarly flawed system, ethical subjectivism, in which moral determinations are purely a matter of personal preference. The motivation behind the move is a celebration of tolerance. We should not be closed-minded with respect to the fact that others can intelligently disagree with our value claims.

This is true, but notice what happens, if an act is morally good for me because I think it is, then it does not matter what someone else thinks. I have no reason to take anyone else seriously. Raising tolerance to the status of the only relevant virtue undermines tolerance.

The same thing happens here. Aristotle was absolutely correct in arguing that we are political animals. We live in societies, in cultures in which we are affected by the actions of each other. We are not atoms, monads who live unattached to those around me. Rather, we are inextricably interconnected in such ways that my freedoms can be circumscribed by the actions of others.

Take free speech. I may be free to say whatever I want as loudly as I want on a street corner, but if there is someone on the adjacent street corner with a megaphone, I will not be heard. Am I still free to speak? Well, in a sense yes, but if it is impossible for me to be heard, then in the operative sense I cannot really speak. The libertarian argues that the marketplace of ideas is maximally enriched by placing no restrictions on speech, but the fact is that unless we have ground rules restraining speech, either no one or no one other than the person who has the biggest megaphone really has that freedom. It may seem paradoxical, but we need to restrain freedom to guarantee freedom or at least guarantee what it is that the freedom is supposed to achieve -- in this case a free exchange of ideas.

And so it goes with many libertarian arguments, that the purpose of liberty is to secure something good, something helpful in living a rich life. But in the moral lessez faire of fetishized freedom for all, actual factors on the ground that lead to unequal abilities to utilize that freedom are ignored.

The ad hominem move here is to attribute motivations to this ignoring of the context pointing out that those who most usually champion the libertarian cause are those who stand to gain the most, those who have the head start and the big megaphone. Libertarians are in general rich, white, smart, and or well-educated. But if we set aside why those who put forward the argument do so and look just at the cogency of the claim itself. It is true that liberty is an aspect of society necessary for human well-being, but it is not the only one. We live -- and must live -- in a way in which I have responsibilities to others. There is no doubt that there are times when I am freed from these responsibilities and may pursue my own rational self-interest without concern for anyone or anything else, but there are also times where I cannot and those constraints on my personal freedom may benefit the whole, including me. they may be a necessary condition in setting up an environment in which I can be free, in which I can make use of liberty in a way that allows me to grow, to transcend, to become great -- all the things libertarians speak of. but it is a matter of context, of the way the world is that determines how much liberty needs to be constrained to be effective. Elevation of individual freedom to the sole condition of human flourishing leads to no one flourishing.