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Why I am a libertarian

Written on 19 July 2003

Australian Libertarian Society blogger 24601 provides a useful distinction between the two principle underlying philosophies of libertarianism. Useful but, I think, neither fully applies to me. So why am I a libertarian?

First, here is 24601's distinction:

There are two broad schools [of underlying philosophy of libertarians] here -- 'rights-based' (or moral) libertarians and utilitarian libertarians. Rights-based libertarians believe that people have the right to life, liberty and property and that it is wrong to violate such rights with violence and/or coercion. Note that this does not mean you have the right to everlasting life, the freedom to do anything and that you can have all the property you want. Instead, it means that no other person or institution should be able to use violence and/or coercion to take from you your life, liberty or property. According to 'rights-based' libertarians, actions are good if they are voluntary and bad if they are violent and/or coerced -- irrespective of the impact on utility. Notable 'rights-based' libertarians include John Locke, Ayn Rand and Nozick.

In contrast, utilitarian libertarians judge actions by whether the actions result in an increase or decrease in utility (utility = happiness). This is probably the more common strand, and includes such notables as J.S.Mill, Hayek, Mises, Milton Friedman and David Friedman. In truth, many people believe in both -- but generally they believe in one more than the other.

So here's the choice: a moral grounding for libertarianism, or a utilitarian grounding. Or, perhaps, a bit of both.

Moral libertarianism

Moral libertarianism relies on a conception of Lockean 'natural rights'. But I maintain that there are no natural rights. The history of humanity has, for the most part, been that of tribal organisation. Anthropology suggests, notwithstanding Rousseauean wishful thinking to the contrary, that human tribes in reasonably proximity to each other have generally had a relationship characterised by war. In many tribal areas of the world the single largest cause of death for males is warfare.

There was no respect for others' rights, when the 'other' was outside the tribe. Within the tribe there was likewise frequently no respect for the rights of some members (women, for example). Intra-tribal relationships were characterised by co-operation and sharing. Not through unconditional good-feeling, even though there is reason to believe that the sense of gratification that one may enjoy from altruistic behaviour may have evolved as an instinctual encouragement to this co-operation. No, the sharing and co-operation was a reciprocal behaviour that enhanced survival. The long-term ill, the feeble elderly, could often expect to receive little of the shared booty from the hunt, or worse.

So if by 'natural' we mean evolved by nature, then there are no 'natural rights'. What have been called natural rights are an outgrowth, or a justification of (often under religious auspices), of the intra-tribal relationships subjected to what Peter Singer calls 'the expanding circle'. As some unnatural deviants amongst the early homo sapiens developed a begrudging trade with 'others', and as communications 'technology' increased (through developing abilities of different groups to learn the others' languages and, later, extend their travel through specialisation and horsepower), the intra-tribal feelings were extended to others. Various religions, often rightly blamed for division, have also extended the circle of intimates to much larger groups. Calls of the 'treat each other as you would have them treat you' kind, frequently limited to co-religionists, helped broaden the circle still further. One could not only trust those in one's immediate circle, but learn that the strength of the religion allowed one to have reasonably safe relationships with previously unknown persons of the same religion.

Rights have, indeed, evolved. But not in the way that most people would call 'natural'. Hayek details this evolution in The Fatal Conceit, which I heartily recommend.

But these rights are not natural. And they are periodically taken away. By criminals, by governments, sometimes even by family members. Neither are these 'natural rights' static. Today we are in the midst of an expansion of these rights (now under the label 'human rights') to include such things as a right not to have information concerning us made available to others. This is a right that until the last couple of hundred years would not even have crossed anyone's mind.

Ayn Rand takes a slightly different approach to natural rights. She grounds them in our nature. But hers is a constructivist philosophy (not unlike Marxism) that creates a wobbly edifice upon a bed of sand.

Rights are anything but natural. If they were, we wouldn't have to fight so hard for them.

Utilitarian libertarianism

I am equally uncomfortable with utility as a justification for libertarianism. As it happens, for the most part libertarian proposals offer powerful enhancements to utility. But there is no reason in principle why this should be so. Further, I believe, utility cannot in principle be used as a policy guide where, as 24601 points out, utility stands for happiness.

Much public debate in favour of governments taking unlibertarian policy positions in fact employs the language of utility. Certainly, most of the time the calculus of costs and benefits is not even properly attempted. But it is possible (in principle at least) that the benefits of some unlibertarian policy could outweigh its costs.

Consider, for example, the case for the death penalty. Let us assume that the accurate imposition of the death penalty for murder deters further murders. Indeed, let us assume that for the execution of each murderer, two potential victims' lives are saved as a result (in part through the deterrence of other potential murderers, in part through the inability of the executed to escape or be released and commit future murders). Let us further assume that the population at large welcomes the executions as proper justice. Counting up the lives saved and the feelings uplifted, this would count as a decidedly pro-utility policy (although many libertarians, including me, disagree with state-imposed executions).

Now let us go one step further. The law is a human institution. It will make mistakes. As set up in places like Australia, the bias in mistake-making is towards unjustly acquitting the guilty, rather than unjustly convicting the innocent. Now let us say that one per thousand times the mistake is made the wrong way around: an innocent person is convicted of murder and executed. So long as mistakes of this kind remain rare enough to avoid throwing the whole system into disrepute, it would have very little effect upon the calculus of utility. The occasional execution of an innocent would be a price worth paying on the criterion of utility.

If one accepts that, then I hold that such a person is not a libertarian at all.

The other problem with utility as a foundation for libertarianism is that utility (which, remember, equals the overall affect upon population happiness) is not measurable in any but the simplest cases. If you can't measure it, you can't calculate utility.

Consider a person with a chronic terminal illness. He has a choice between palliative care which renders him largely unconscious, or awful pain. Whichever he chooses, it is clear that he does not want his death -- forecast for six months hence -- to be accelerated. In the meantime, his family and friends are suffering hugely. Bringing the death forward would have the benefit of reducing their suffering immensely (their pain on his death would merely be brought forward, but they will have to suffer that pain in six months anyway, so the overall effect is to spare them six months of dread). There would also be savings in financial costs (perhaps from the Estate, or otherwise government health funding). Those are the benefits.

The costs are the shortening of this man's life. But what do we know about how dearly he holds onto his life? From the outside, it seems that his remaining six months must be devalued to insignificance. He will either be unconscious or in agony. Surely his desire to draw out his days to the end is misguided.

Yet, in reality, how can we judge the strength of his interest in lengthening his life. We can't apply a formula, as though to a mass commodity, because attachment to life is a quality that varies between the widest possible extremes. Some people will suicide rather than face what seems to be a mild shame. Others will persevere through decades of painful imprisonment and torture, with no real hope of eventual release or vindication, so strong is their attachment to life.

A utilitarian policy (of the kind Peter Singer is good at) would quickly lead to the termination of our old man's life, on the assumption that he merely has an average attachment to life. But this may indeed be a miscalculation.

I recall seeing on the TV some years ago an interview with a New Zealand thalidomide victim, then adult. As far as I could judge, this legless, armless man was full of the most incredible joy of life. Yet were he in-utero today and his condition detected, he would almost certainly be terminated out of consideration for the burden upon his parents, and for the near-certainty that his life would be one of unrelieved misery.

These are simple cases. I defy anyone to do a proper utilitarian calculation on the normal bread-and-butter policy of government. Will a small tax hike increase, or reduce, utility? The problem is only partly the things that should be taken into account: small reductions in happiness for those paying the increased tax, slightly greater disincentives to work, greater happiness for those receiving the benefits of the increased taxation. These can never be calculated because we can never get into the hearts of all those people, no matter how much the science of psychology advances, no matter what it may disclose about general psychological responses. It will not reveal all the effects upon the glorious diverse range people's feelings and thinking and actions.

But, equally, we will never think of all the factors that go into properly calculating utility anyway. Think of a dozen, or a hundred, and still there will be effects on happiness out there that have not been taken into account.

If I were a believer in God, I might think that He could do a real calculation of utility. But human beings? Never.

Pragmatic libertarianism

If there is another word for it, let me know. But this is what I subscribe to. It is not nice and neat. It does not lend itself to easy description. It is messy.

In my case, it's based on an irritation with the presumption of so many people that they dare to think they know what is better for me than I do myself. But let me try to lift this out of my own issues with authority, and place it on a slightly more rational basis.

As I have tried to argue above, I do not -- cannot -- know what is truly in the hearts of others. Oh, sure, I might have a rough idea of what's in my wife's heart, what motivates my children, and maybe even some of my friends. But the grey-haired guy down the street who I know only to nod to? The plump short-haired lady behind the cigarette counter at the supermarket? I do not know what they are thinking. I do not know what motivates them. I do not know their values, their life ambitions, their faiths, their addictions. And what goes for me in respect of them, goes for them in respect of me.

Yet they, and the tens of thousands of others in my electorate, and the millions across Australia, are my masters. If, perchance, they should get it into their heads to vote for someone who will introduce a goods and services tax, then they have sentenced me to around half-a-week of otherwise unnecessary accounting work each quarter. As, indeed, they have.

My life is, in a sense, more directly productive than many of the people who happen to read this. Sure, I am merely a professional writer. And what I mostly write about is home entertainment equipment, upon which the future the world and its peoples most certainly does not depend. Nevertheless, I am no-one's employee. I think of something. I organise some product. I write about it. I sell the article. It's the 21st century equivalent of raising my own food on my own plot of land.

No, all you employees out there, I'm not putting you down. You all contribute one way or the other. Indeed, just about all of you employed in the private sector, and some in the public sector, probably produce more value than I do. It's just that my work life provides a more direct connection between production and income. And, so, I resent the whole idea of taxation, in large part because I have to take the money out of the bank (actually, out of the always-negative bank facility) to pay to the Australian Taxation Office, plus throw away dozens of hours of my own time that I'd much rather spend on creating more value.

Mine is just one story amongst ten million in Australia. I cannot presume to know what's right for those other millions, and nor can they for me.

I am clever. This is a statement of fact, not self-congratulation. I catch onto things fast. When in the mood, I read stuff that most of my fellow citizens would find impenetrable. I know quite a bit about the stuff of a very broad range of subjects. And I have one intellectual quality that seems to be fairly rare: I largely know my own limitations. I know that there are some subjects of which I know nothing. I know fairly well where the limits of my knowledge are in the subjects I do know. I know that I choose not to extend my knowledge in certain areas for the time being, and would perhaps be incapable of extending my knowledge in certain other areas. All this does not mean that I am not opinionated. Indeed, I am, intensely.

But my knowledge of my limitations, and my naturally introspective nature, has made me all too aware of my own imperfections. I get things wrong. I misunderstand. I form faulty judgments of people. I am just too often mistaken.

Combine these two things. I am smarter than the majority of my fellow citizens. I am often in error. Now generalise.

Yes, the people in government, even though (as I believe) their hearts are in the right places, stuff up just as much as I do.

The difference is, when I stuff up, I hurt myself and maybe a few people with whom I have contact. When the government stuffs up, it hurts millions.

This is the intellectual foundation of my libertarianism. To trust that governments will do the right thing is to intentionally engage in cognitive dissonance. You, yourself, my reader, know that you are imperfect. Why on earth do you think that the people in government are any better?

Let each of us make our own decisions. We are, after all, the best ones to judge what's best for ourselves and those dearest to us.

© 2003 - Stephen Dawson