Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Left-Libertarianism Revisted

I've been doing some more reading (and listening) regarding the ideas of "thin" and "thick" libertarianism; which appear to appeal to right-libertarianism and left-libertarianism respectively. I have to say, I started into it with some of the same eerie feelings I had when I first started reading into Austrian Economics and Anarcho-Capitalism. That is to say, that feeling you get when you think some of your views are about to be seriously questioned, and possibly shifted considerably. Change is always a scary proposition. We all tend to believe we're on the right path to some extent. And a sense of invested time and effort results in a sometimes unwarranted stalwart defense against new ideas, even when your views don't stand up. However, my exposure to some of these left-libertarian ideas, in addition to bringing up more questions, has oddly left me feeling even more comfortable with what would appear to be my own "thin" view of libertarianism.

Before leveling some of my grievances, I think it's best to give the "thick" view of libertarianism its due. If anything, the Anarcho-Communist/Mutualist view serves to ask important questions that more right-leaning libertarians have not successfully addressed. Concepts like freedom of access and travel within a propertarian framework, the aggregation of land-ownership, indentured servitude, and reciprocity in defense are all issues which libertarianism (of the right-leaning sort) has traditionally had a problem distilling down into constituently proper conclusions. However, I think there are several additional problems that flow from not only the premise of the questions, but also the normative conclusions drawn by the libertarian-left borne out of these questions. My primary criticisms in regards to these objections and their fore drawn conclusions can be roughly divided into three categories; Economic Luditism, Containment/Implication, and Ethical Scope.


Most of the objections brought forth by left-libertarians invoke direct ethical and cultural sensitivities. This concerns me. Beyond the fact that even the most strictly propertarian view derives from some sense of an ethical claim (regardless of whether you believe that claim to be true or not), it always rubs me the wrong way when someone is invoking an emotional response when trying to persuade someone. It's one of the first barriers I found myself overcoming when digging into economics; there are many concepts which initially sound counter-intuitive from an ethical perspective, even if they broadly conform to your own consequentialist norms in the end.

When digging into the subject, there are many altruistic - albeit absurd - conjectures made by leftists of all stripes. As a libertarian you become somewhat battle-hardened in this cat-and-mouse game; thus earning us us the title of "heartless"...and we wear it like a badge. However the beauty of understanding economics is that you come to realize that even your own "heartless" conclusions about policy would achieve more in the truest sense of altruism than even the most utilitarian among the left would desire. We use economics to turn the sword of our enemies against themselves...and we do it well.

So, it is interesting to try to reconcile some of the left-libertarian conclusions in light of their promotion of personal sovereignty and a somewhat leftist view of economics. Now, it would be unfair to make the simple comparison of left-libertarians and left-statists in general because left-libertarians, at least on the surface, do not promote state-based rectification of perceived economic injustices. However, their commitment to the support of the labor movement and various vestiges of socialist/communal ideologies have left them in a place where they have somehow managed to largely ignore some of the key subjectivist insights of the marginal revolution in economics. Their adherence to the anti-"capitalist" tradition of many 18th century thinkers like Proudhon have left them in the position of giving an ad hoc economic justification for labor seizing the means of production. And they do this largely by propping up ideas like the labor theory of value; something which admittedly was greatly inspired by Adam Smith, but has nevertheless been crushed by subsequent frameworks.

It's unclear to me whether their views on capital, interest, or value have led to their political conclusions or the other way around, but they nonetheless bandy some of these tenets as justification for what I would label exceptions to (from their point of view) a system of non-aggression based on property. This strikes me as making aggression out to mean something more arbitrary than what I find it to actually be. Under this paradigm, a violent confiscation of capital would be seen as just; as the left-libertarian would not consider it aggression to take something which does not contort with their concept of possible property formation in the first place.

Now, property formation is a concept which is open to philosophical engagement to be sure. However, it is not clear to me that some of their mis-steps in economic thought are not leading them in an untoward direction regarding their sense of property and property-rights in general. In this way, I think our devotion to economic schools of thought (on both sides) have blinded us to the real discussion; which should be about liberty. Instead, our varied view on economics has left those on the right supporting business while decrying labor and has left those on the left supporting labor while decrying business. And so, I will concede that many right-libertarians give too much reactionary support to corporatism and too much criticism to labor when it shouldn't (although most anarcho-capitalists are good on this). But it seems that left-libertarians are far more willing to vilify not only corporatism, but business itself. And the complications of that mindset in a framework supposedly born out of "freedom" is disconcerting.


Another problem I have with some of these objections is that it's not clear to me that, given the proposition that a propertarian sense of justice does not discretely resolve some issues, we should abandon property-based aggression principles, or that they are necessarily, therefore, inconsistent. Take the issue of the level of reciprocity in force when it comes to self-defense. Most forms of property-based libertarianism lay out a right to self-defense in some sense. But it is not specifically clear what is acceptable in terms of self-defense. We may mostly agree that it would be acceptable to, for instance, kill someone who broke into our house and was attempting to kill us. However it is less clear that it is acceptable to kill someone who breaks into your house to steal your TV. And then it is even less clear that it is acceptable to shoot someone who is simply standing on your front lawn.

This point is an excellent one raised by left-libertarians that right-libertarians have paid too little credence to. This much is true. However, it seems like a non-sequitur to conclude that a property-based sense of aggression is not integral to the concept of aggression. To be fair, there is a wide variation in the left-libertarian approach to this objection. But a good deal of them seem to concede that if propertarian justice (as currently understood) cannot discretely resolve an injustice, then it is therefore incorrect OR that the only resolution to the problem must be borne out of some contradictory sense of sense of justice (a "just" violation of property-rights). I have a problem with both of these conclusions.

It is true that at some fundamental level, propertarian justice can get fuzzy. In fact, a great deal of any ethical proposition can get fuzzy at a certain level. So unless you've resigned yourself to some nihilistic outlook, be prepared to confront this truth. However, troublesome as it may be, it doesn't make sense to conclude that a resolution would be necessarily inconsistent with property-rights, per se. Take Newtonian physics versus Einsteinian physics. When we moved to adopting Einstein's theories over those of Newton, we did not dispense with the primary concept of gravity, or how it practically works in the real world. Indeed, most practical applications of physics have remained unchanged. We still teach Newtonian concepts as a practical/elementary approach to understanding physics. However, Einstein's insights have left us with a different framework for that understanding, and has in several ways strengthened some of the conclusions brought forth by Newton, even though Newton's own framework was not sophisticated enough to grapple with the better understanding that Einstein proffered.

If we were to start to see limitations to Einstein's ideas (as we once did for Newton), it wouldn't make sense to simply throw out all the pragmatic conclusions we have drawn from his insights (as we understand them to be practically correct). We would merely come to the understanding that it is incomplete. The formation of a new concept would not necessitate new conclusions perhaps, but rather a more complex framework. In this way, a fuzzy understanding of property-based liberty could be reaching the limits of its framework. But it's not clear that a resolution couldn't be an extension to or a rebuilding of that framework, without violating its a priori conclusions.

It sometimes seems that left-libertarians are willing to throw away the concept of property altogether when discussing aggression, which seems even more bizarre than the inherent problems they point out in the first place. I would contend that responding to the incompleteness of propertarian justice theory by throwing out the implications of property altogether would be like us throwing out gravity because we believed that maybe Newton and Einstein hadn't quite figured everything out. Yes, acknowledge the shortcomings surely. But we must seriously grapple with the consequences of dispensing of our practical conclusions altogether before we start building things on the proposition that gravity itself doesn't exist, merely because we don't properly understand it.


The rebuttal to many of the left-leaning normative claims are difficult to procure because, in essence, their view results from a synthesis of various senses of virtue with justice. And I believe this may be the subtle core of the issue altogether. I believe what is occurring is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance regarding the reconciliation of virtues like charity with the concept of justice. From the point of view of any individual, there are many virtues which we generally believe we should strive for. And these virtues make up our sense of ethics, and more generally our sense of morality. But, while they are all integral, in the sense of being virtuous as a person, it isn't quite clear to me that any single virtue is clearly consequential, in the Aristotelian sense, to any other aspect of virtue itself and particularly with justice. I believe that when right-libertarians view the political sphere, they consider it to be a sole question of justice. Therefore, any aggregation of "rights" in the positive sense, seems silly to them. Courage, generosity, pride, temperance; all of these may certainly be questions of virtue. But among virtue, law is the purview of justice alone, and so it follows with political recourse.

To the right-libertarian justice is merely the balance weighing human interaction. In the classically liberal sense, justice is the measure of liberty itself. I would contend that virtue, in many ways, is outside of the scope of justice. Justice makes no calls on the vice of gambling or drug-addiction. Likewise, it makes no calls on the virtuous nature of feeding the poor and healing the sick. I believe that many left-libertarians find this disconcerting.

But I think they may be too eager to put the horse before the cart. I don't believe that putting virtue out of the purview of justice is binding us to self-destruction in any sense. It doesn't follow, to me, that we are saying that justice TRUMPS these perceived virtues. The right-libertarian merely claims that it's not a matter that justifies reciprocal force or coercion. In that sense, justice actually precludes obligations to be moral or amoral. Instead its concern is lateral; that of actually defending your right to remain neutral . In this way, justice is merely inconsistent with virtue only to the extent that it's indifferent to it. Many left-libertarians may find this abhorrent, but when you consider some of the radically subjective notions that could spring forth from moralizing our notions of justice, you might understand that the hesitance of many libertarians in latching onto the application of virtue through justice. It may be preferable, instead, to consider justice a seperate sphere of ethics altogether.

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