Monday, February 23, 2009

Libertarianism and liberalism: what's the disagreement?

Will Wilkinson's blog has been great reading lately. Check out this post.

Wilkinson distinguishes between "big-government libertarianism" and "limited-government liberalism." Here is what I take to be the essence of the distinction:

So, “limited-goverment liberalism” starts with liberalism and then argues that libertarianish policies and institutions will best secure liberal aims. “Big government libertarianism” starts with traditional minimal state libertarianism, but moderates it to make marginally more libertarian policy politically feasible.
As he suggests, the only plausible way of interpreting "big-government libertarianism" is a form of non-ideal theory. Libertarians would like the state to look like X. Unfortunately, until everyone becomes a libertarian, the closest they can get is X*. We know what X looks like: it's either anarcho-capitalism (in which case, X is "non-existent"), or the night-watchman state of minarchism.

X*, of course, is something less ideal than either of these things, but an improvement over the status quo. We can imagine it is a state with a limited social safety net, flatter, lower taxes, and so on. Wilkinson's own example of the kind of government program you might find in X* is mandatory retirement savings accounts.

The important point to keep in mind is that X* is less than ideal; it is still unjust, and there is still a weighty moral reason (even an obligation?) on citizens to move their state toward X.

In contrast, the limited-government liberal "start[s] from a fairly typical liberal account of the state and it’s [sic] aims." However, unlike the typical liberal, the limited-government liberal believes that X* (or something like it) is the best way to meet those aims.

In practice, then, the limited-government liberal and the big-government libertarian may converge to a large degree in terms of their policy recommendations. What they do not converge on is the purpose for those policies, nor the moral status of a society in which those policies will be enacted. To the libertarian, X* remains unjust. To the liberal, X* is just, to the extent the policies actually obtain their aims.

This seems like an intractable disagreement. Fortunately, this disagreement should only have bite in X*, where libertarians will support a move to X, and limited-government liberals will resist.

Except, it isn't like that. Libertarians are likely to be unsatisfied with Wilkinson's proposal. Why? My explanation is this: In contrast to many other "isms", libertarians are generally very aware of their most basic moral principles. Consequently, they're very interested in the basic moral principles of those who aren't libertarians. A political "ism" should be judged in terms of its foundational moral principles, and not in terms of the upshot those principles have when applied to policy. At least, I think that's the idea.

To take an example, Wilkinson's liberalism accepts -- even demands -- some level of taxation, if its aims are to be achieved. Now, for most (all?) libertarians, taxation is unjust; this follows from the basic principles of libertarianism, as they are commonly espoused ("axiom" of non-aggression, etc.) Wilkinson's basic moral principles, whatever they are, allow some kind of taxation.

But no longer is this just a disagreement about policy. Rather, it's a disagreement about justice. And Wilkinson's conception of justice endorses injustice from the libertarian point of view (though not from mine!) That makes him not only wrong, but -- in some sense -- a proponent of injustice.

I mean, it's not hard to imagine what someone from Lew Rockwell Institute would say to Wilkinson's proposals.

Thus, we may have to decide between competing conceptions of justice. Famously, John Rawls didn't think there would be that much disagreement about justice in contemporary liberal democracies. That seems a bit implausible.

Instead, I've argued here that arguments about justice cannot be conducted in a vacuum -- that, in the end, we can't just talk about what's right, but also what is good. The risk is that once we say something as simple as "It is bad when children starve through the incompetence of their parents," we at least open the door to the possibility that, just perhaps, something ought to be done to prevent this bad outcome from occurring.

Even if that means some minimal form of taxation.


P. M. Jaworski said...

Good stuff, one (large) quibble:

"A political "ism" should be judged in terms of its foundational moral principles, and not in terms of the upshot those principles have when applied to policy. At least, I think that's the idea."

I disagree and think the reverse is true. A political "ism" should be judged by the nexus of institutions, or the public policy proposals that it endorses.

A moral "ism" should be applied in cases where someone is busy talking about the reasons for certain institutions or policies.

Morality provides reasons, political philosophy provides the policy proposals that one or another moral outlook demands or suggests.

I think there is terrible confusion in the literature and elsewhere on this point. I think just about everybody is at least occasionally confused about this.

A libertarian *just is* someone who endorses certain institutions (like private property rights, a small and limited government, freedom of speech and expression, etc.), and then there are the moral views that underpin the philosophy. Most will be deontic natural rights theorists, or Kantians, or Objectivists, some will be utilitarians, and so on.

To see this, consider the scope of the non-aggression axiom, a favourite amongst a certain sub-set of libertarians. It's application is not limited to political institutions, but to interpersonal relationships more broadly. Thus it is not specifically a political maxim or axiom, but a moral one. Thus it counts as part of someone's broader moral outlook, and not only a part of their political outlook.

Don't you agree?

Stefan Molyneux, MA said...

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Terrence C. Watson said...


Yes, I wasn't saying I agreed with that statement, or that it is essential to libertarianism. I do think it is a common behavioral trait in libertarians, though.

Objectivists are the obvious example. But the Lew Rockwell folks might fit the description as well.

I generally agree with your remarks about the relationship of morality to politics. And, I'd add, some libertarians really ought to pay a bit of attention to Rawls' overlapping consensus stuff.

Those who endorse a very tight connection between a single moral principle, e.g. the non-aggression axiom, and their political doctrine are in for a bumpy ride. Either:

1. They have to get everyone to accept the moral principle. Unlikely, especially given pluralism, or:

2. Attempt to "trick" people into moving toward libertarianism, in the way Rothbard did by trying to stir up a race war.

Detaching morality from politics creates the room needed if people are to openly engage those who disagree with them politically on common moral ground, and vice versa.

That's a rather large benefit, I think, but it forces one to abandon the idea that every "ism" can be judged simply on the basis of its foundational moral principles.

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