Friday, October 14, 2011

Angels and Demons

In making my usual rounds at the blogs I so dearly admire, I'm always enamored of some of the general commentary directed at libertarians or libertarianism. Some of the criticism is polite and well-reasoned. At the other end of the spectrum there is quite a bit of it that is hateful and often poorly written. I get a kick out of reading both kinds. What's odd is that the posts that are actually frustrating are the ones that fall most squarely in between the two, often a comment which seems well-intentioned but poorly reasoned.

I saw one such comment on Marginal Revolution recently, a criticism that I've seen and heard countless times but one that seems to miss the whole thrust of libertarianism in the midst of critiquing it. It's a claim that comes up in discussions about the libertarian view of the government and/or its role, in general. It goes something like this; A libertarian excoriates government and wants to reduce or eliminate it in some capacity - a critic responds that this is Utopian nonsense, that libertarians foolishly believe in the good-hearted nature of man and rely on that to keep people in check.

It's really just a re-hashing of Madison from Federalist #51:

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

It may be true that libertarians, generally speaking, place more faith in the basic social institutions of man than some. They don't believe that everyone would simply abandon their normative prescriptions without a coercive monopoly to enforce them - after all, is it not those underlying moral constructs that inform our building and maintenance of such an institution as it already exists? It certainly would seem that way. The deontological claim from libertarians is that such social institutions ought not impede liberty. But, of course, this isn't the only argument libertarians make. They also, more often than not, make consequentialist arguments for why free-floating social institutions (as opposed to their self-imposed monopolist versions) actually work out better, as per their intended function, in the end.

In the political sphere, a large part of the libertarian argument against government isn't that people are simply angels and that since this is self-evident then we need no such institutions. Rather the argument is actually almost the entire opposite. Men are, indeed, not angels. They are agents that, even in supposed public capacity, are more than capable of acting as self-interested agents (there's a whole field dedicated to this idea). So our view is actually something like:

If men were angels we wouldn't need institutions of justice. And since they aren't, we can't allow a single group of actors to obtain the right to exclusively shape and administer justice.

In other words, yes - if men were angels we wouldn't need "government." But if men were angels, we wouldn't have to worry about an exclusive governing by a single group of men over other men. If there is any common theme in libertarianism it's the upholding of property rights and a general thrust for decentralization of power - concepts which evolve from the general notion that men are not perfect, and therefore must have coherent social conventions through which largely peaceful interaction is possible. I think I speak for all libertarians when I say, "If you think libertarianism isn't borne out of a heavy consideration for the malevolent capabilities of man, then you don't understand much about libertarianism."

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