January 2, 2013 columns

Asking the Hard Questions

I have always thought of myself as a philosopher first, and a libertarian second. In my more self-congratulatory moments, I tell myself that this is because my highest commitment is to the truth, wherever it may lead, regardless of political program. To be honest, though, I think it largely comes down to personality. The fact is, being in a room full of people who all agree with each other—especially about politics—makes me profoundly uncomfortable. And that discomfort makes me start to question things. Put me in a room full of socialists, and I will start arguing for the virtues of a free market. But transport me to a room full of libertarians and, well…

And that’s why I’m here, blogging for Libertarianism.org. It’s not to be a cheerleader for libertarianism, though I think that doctrine gives us plenty cause for cheer. It’s to raise uncomfortable questions, explore challenges, and poke and prod the weak points in the ideological armor we all sometimes get a little too comfortable in.

In the end, of course, I’m still a libertarian—though perhaps a libertarian of a somewhat unorthodox sort. I think that there are weaknesses in many standard libertarian arguments. And I think that a failure to recognize those weaknesses leads many libertarians to blunder when presenting their position to outsiders, or defending it against objections. But I think that the weaknesses can be overcome; or, when they can’t, that the strengths of the view are sufficient to compensate for them.

I suspect most readers of this blog probably feel the same. Still, until and unless we’ve gone through the hard intellectual work of thinking through the weak spots in your position, we can’t really know this to be true. It might be true, but even true opinions, as John Stuart Mill warned us, “if…not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed…will be held as dead dogma, not [as] living truth.”  And truth thus held, he notes, “is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

As a philosopher, I don’t think that’s any way for a rational being to live. But, you may ask, so what? Not everyone is a philosopher (thank God). Some people just want to figure out the truth so that they can get on with the important practical business of getting things done—of creating wealth, being a good citizen, and maybe moving our society a little bit farther down the path toward freedom. Does Mill’s point have any practical significance?

I believe that it does. For even if all you want to do is nudge public policy in the direction of freedom, you cannot begin to do that unless you actually know what freedom is, and that is a question which brings you right back to philosophy. For instance, is the protection of intellectual property a way of securing freedom (as is, we libertarians believe, the protection of property in tangible goods)? Or is it itself a violation of freedom? To answer this question requires not just understanding the concept of freedom, but its relation to the concept of property both in external objects and in one’s self. A philosophical understanding of these concepts might not be sufficient to resolve the challenge of intellectual property, but it is surely necessary. (Hey, necessary and sufficient conditions—that’s more philosophy!)

“Balderdash,” you say! If talk about freedom requires so much philosophy, then so much the worse for the concept of freedom. Libertarians can, and should perhaps, just be pragmatic. Forget about philosophy; let’s just do what works.

But not even this quintessentially American pragmatism allows us to escape philosophy’s probing questions. For we cannot know what works unless we know what it means to “work.” A policy “works,” presumably, if it gets us the right results. But what results are right? Economic growth? Increased happiness? More freedom? (whoops, back to that difficult concept again!) To know what works requires, at the very least, that we decide which outcomes are worth pursuing and what means are legitimate for pursuing them. It requires, in other words, that we think philosophically about morality and politics.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing in my future posts here. I invite you to think critically with me about some of the foundational concepts of our shared worldview. In some of my next few posts, I’ll talk about freedom, about self-ownership, and about free exchange. In discussing these issues, I’ll draw on the resources of philosophy, but also on the rich resources of the libertarian intellectual tradition—a tradition that Libertarianism.org in general and George H. Smith’s wonderful posts in particular are doing so much to keep alive. I hope you’ll join me.