Sunday, October 21, 2012

Larry with Some Thoughts on Libertarianism

As I mentioned, I'm going to be debating/speaking with a Libertarian on campus next week. I have some questions about Libertarianism I'm hoping he will answer.

The most obvious questions is, what precisely is Libertarianism? Is it just a laundry list of political positions? There's nothing wrong with that — both the Democratic and Republican parties take this approach; it's called a "platform" — but it would be nice to know if there really is a cohesive, non-trivial philosophy underneath.

Without putting words in anyone's mouth, the most concise description of Libertarianism I've heard is that state power should prohibit the initiation of coercion, and only the initiation of coercion. But this description doesn't seem coherent; specifically, the initiation of coercion seems to equivocate with the use of force the speaker does not like or that goes against his or her personal or class interests. Again, there's nothing wrong with a specialized, subjectivist, interests-based political philosophy, but it doesn't seem helpful to label a subjectivist philosophy as objective, and it's dishonest to justify a specialized interpretation with our moral intuitions about the general, literal interpretation.

Is Libertarianism better because it's more moral, or is it more moral because it's better? In other words, is Libertarianism justified on moral grounds or pragmatic grounds?

Are there objective reasons to consider the use of economic power non-coercive? Or is it just that Libertarians approve of economic power and disapprove of physical, directly violent power? Again, it's unproblematic to approve of one kind of power and disapprove of another, but does Libertarianism make the distinction explicit, and does it refrain from equivocation to leverage moral intuition?-The Barefoot Bum: Thoughts on Libertarianism

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  1. "In other words, is Libertarianism justified on moral grounds or pragmatic grounds? "

    Both--sometimes by the same libertarian, sometimes by different libertarians.

    "what precisely is Libertarianism?"

    A set of conclusions, which different libertarians may hold for different underlying reasons.

    Even at that level, there isn't a precise definition, because in practice it's a matter of degree--although some libertarians would like to believe the contrary. In the strongest sense it's a rejection of all initiation of coercion, in the weakest a general preference for leaving individuals free to make choices in both economic and social matters, but a preference that allows for a good many exceptions.

    Obviously, concepts such as "free to make choices" and "initiation of coercion" are not self-explanatory, but I don't think a blog comment is sufficient space, or gives me sufficient incentive, to try to fill them out. You might find my _Machinery of Freedom_, available as a free pdf from my web page, helpful for at least one libertarian's view of such matters.

  2. I dunno, David. Your post makes Libertarianism sound a little like Mom and Apple Pie, i.e. you're for everything good and against everything bad. Surprisingly, so am I. :-)

    I don't need perfect precision, but it would be nice to find something between perfect precision and vague generalities. No matter at what length I talk to Libertarians (I recently spoke at the Humanists of Colorado alongside the State Chairman of the Colorado Libertarian Party), and I rarely get anything but vague generalities.

    I've read a lot of the literature, of course, but when I critique that, I tend to hear either, "Well, that's not what Libertarianism means to me," or, "No, you're misunderstanding the source." Both are, of course, entirely legitimate answers, but they leave me wanting some clarification. What does Libertarianism mean to you, since, as you say, the definitions differ widely among self-described Libertarianism. How should I understand one source or another?

    As far as you go in this comment, I pretty much agree with you. As a general rule, I don't think people should initiate coercion. I suspect that we disagree, however, on what precisely constitutes the initiation of coercion. I think individuals should indeed make many choices in economic and social matters, with, as you say, a good many exceptions. Am I, a self-described communist, therefore also a Libertarian?

    I'm not sure, however, why you didn't simply quote the opening paragraph of your book, The Machinery of Freedom, as it's much more specific than your comment here:

    The central idea of libertarianism is that people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish. We totally reject the idea that people must be forcibly protected from themselves. A libertarian society would have no laws against drugs, gambling, pornography —and no compulsory seat belts in cars. We also reject the idea that people have an enforceable claim on others, for anything more than being left alone. A libertarian society would have no welfare,no Social Security system. People who wished to aid others would do so voluntarily through private charity, instead of using money collected by force from the taxpayers. People who wished to provide for their old age would do so through private insurance.

    That's a very definite position. My first question is, obviously: is it pragmatically justified or morally justified?

    I will, of course, read the whole book, and discuss it on my blog. You'll have to be patient, though; I presently have many demands on my time.

    I'm subscribing to comments on this post, so feel free to answer here or on my own blog.

  3. David: Are you the same David Friedman who's featured on Mike Huben's Critique of Libertarianism site?

    1. Larry, he is Milton Friedman's son.

    2. So I'm guessing, that yes, he's who Huben is referring to.


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