Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Two Kinds of Libertarianism?

In this post on Gays & Lesbians for Ron Paul, Berin Szoka calls Kirchick's TNR article a "smear job" and "refutes" it by way of ad hominem attacks on the author (see, Kirchick thinks the neo-Confederate stance might sometimes be a cover for racism -- amazing how anyone could think that, huh?)

At one point in Szoka's post, he claims to "strike at the root" of Kirchick's problem with Paul. Apparently, Kirchick has described himself as a libertarian. How could a libertarian be against Ron Paul? Szoka wonders. His answer is that Kirchick and the Cato Institute represent one strand of libertarianism, while Ron Paul and Mises represent another. Szoka spins mightily to try to find a way to call both strands of thought "libertarian", and his efforts are revealing:

For some at Cato (though certainly not all) and perhaps for Kirchick, libertarianism is simply about maximizing personal autonomy for the individual on any and every issue.
Yeah, I know. Where did the Cato Institute get the idea that libertarianism is about increasing the liberty of the individual? It's ludicrous, I tell ya!

As for the second strand of libertarianism, Szoka says that, in contrast to the "urbane" libertarian folk at Cato, Ron Paul
is as concerned about the liberties of the individual as he is about the institutional structure that protects liberty. When he describes himself as a "constitutionalist," he is not "speaking in code" to express some kind of bigotry, but to defend the liberalism for which the American Revolution was fought: the restraint and diffusion of power through constitutionally limited government.
Consider these two words "restraint" and "diffusion." These are two very different words, although Szoka runs them together as if they basically mean the same thing. However, the difference between them is exactly what produces the difference between the two strands of libertarianism.

To be restrained is to be blocked from doing something. For example, we can say that the Constitution restrains the government from interfering with the marketplace of idea. Everyone thinks the government should be restrained from doing some things, but, one might say, libertarians have a particularly expansive list of the sort of things they think government shouldn't be able to do.

It may seem that liberty and restraint are opposites, for to be restrained is precisely to lack the liberty to do something. But, as Thomas Hobbes clearly saw, the relationship between the two is more complicated. If none of us are ever restrained, our theoretical liberty (or liberty "in principle") will be very high, but our effective liberty (or liberty "in practice") will likely be very small.

Without rules and social coordination, we'll constantly be blocking each other, getting in each other's way, etc, and our lives will be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." So while there is a trade off between restraint and theoretical liberty, it can more than be made up for by an increase in our effective liberty. No, I can't kill whoever I'd like, whenever I'd like, but they can't kill me, either, and, on the whole, laws against murder end up increasing my liberty.

Obviously, too many rules, or the wrong rules, can make my effective liberty evaporate, too. Hobbes was wrong to think that even the worst sovereign is better than anarchy. Thus, the body that makes and enforces the rules has to be restrained as well. Its liberty -- its power -- must also be curtailed, for sake of the liberty of all.

Such is the relationship between liberty and restraint.

Diffusion has a somewhat different meaning. The word literally means to "spread out." When a scent diffuses into the air, it moves from an area of high concentration into an area of lower concentration. The scent itself isn't destroyed in this process, but simply transferred.

Ron Paul and his supporters aren't as interested in restraining government as much as they are interested in diffusing its power. For example, Paul doesn't think the federal government should be able to tell you that you can't have an abortion, but he's fine with state governments doing this. He thinks the federal government's liberty to restrict abortion should be handed over to the states.

But this doesn't make the ability of some to restrain the legitimate behavior of others disappear; rather, it simply transfers it. It doesn't diminish power, but simply places it in other hands, hands that have no more right to that power than the federal government.

Who should have the liberty to tell you what to do with your body? Real libertarians think that only you should have that liberty. All other persons and institutions are under an obligation of restraint.

Szoka second strand of libertarianism is hardly libertarian at all. It's anti-federalist, but not anti-power. It specifically endorses the abuse of the individual, as long as it occurs on a small enough scale. In doing this, as I've said before, it seems to specifically reject the idea of inherent, inalienable, individual rights.

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