November 4, 2011 columns

The Libertarian Idea: Setting the Scene

Pope discusses Jan Narveson’s, The Libertarian Idea.

With this I begin my discussion of The Libertarian Idea. Before delving into its text I thought I’d take a moment to set the scene, explaining both how this work relates to other defenses of libertarianism, and also the broader philosophical tradition of which it is a part.

The Libertarian Idea was first published in 1988. Its author is Jan Narveson. (In realspace he is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. He can be found in cyberspace disputing vigorously with James Sterba.) Narveson wants to defend libertarianism at both the conceptual and foundational level. That is, he aims to show (1) that libertarianism is coherent (that it does not rest on ephemeral distinctions – e.g. between actions and omissions – that cannot conceptually be sustained) and (2) that libertarianism is true, or the correct, properly grounded, theory of justice.

Those are Narveson’s primary aims, but his main motivation in writing The Libertarian Idea was Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Narveson was inspired to write The Libertarian Idea by what he regarded as the promise, but also the inadequacy, of Nozick’s book. For Narveson, Anarchy, State and Utopia is a brilliant formulation of libertarianism, but its justification for the theory is lackluster. As he puts it, libertarianism “seemed … to be in an important sense unfounded. At any rate, its defenders generally appealed, as did Nozick, to what professional philosophers call “intuition” – the philosopher’s word for seat-of-the-pants judgments, that is, judgments lacking a basis in explicit theory and resting simply on whatever immediate appeal they may have” (Narveson: Preface). Thus, given Narveson’s view (which I’ll talk about at some length down the road) that intuition should not play a role in justification – that recurring to intuition amounts to philosophical chest-beating – his “only trouble [with Anarchy, State and Utopia] is that it threatened to replace one dogma with another: to expound, however inimitably and unforgettably, a ‘Libertarianism Without Foundations,’ as one critic has put it” (Narveson, 5).

Because Narveson’s problem with Anarchy, State and Utopia is that it relies on the intuitive appeal of certain propositions to justify libertarianism[fn1], in The Libertarian Idea Narveson aims to give some justification for libertarianism that doesn’t rely on intuition. We will see that he settles on a contractarian foundation.

To preview, the contractarianism Narveson has in mind holds that moral principles or principles of justice (I will focus on principles of justice) [fn2] are those principles to which each of us has prudential reason to agree. On this flavor of contractarianism[fn3], justifying a political principle or a set of institutions is a matter of explaining to each person who would live in the society governed by the principle, or under the relevant institutions, why that principle or set of institutions is good for him. Put another way, contractarianism claims that the principles of justice consist in those principles that each of us, even with our own idiosyncratic wants and capacities, has a prudential reason to agree to let govern the society where we will live. (Note that this is not the same as having a prudential reason to abide by the rules at all times.) If only some have reason to “bargain for,” or “contract” to abide by, a particular set of principles then they are not principles of morality or justice. Narveson’s argument is that this contractarian method of deriving the principles of justice does not rest on intuitions about the good because it rests, instead, on considerations of each person’s own self-interest. (Two posts from now we will also see his other reasons in favor of a contractarian grounding for libertarianism.)

Two take-home points. The first is how strange a work of libertarian theory The Libertarian Idea is. It stands opposed to the dominant traditions within “high libertarian theory,” and it is almost hostile to the methods employed by popularizers of libertarian ideas. That is: it rejects as irrational any arguments for libertarianism that appeal to the substantive values we hold dear. If you have come to libertarianism because you are pleased by some version of the libertarian “vision” (be it Ayn Rand’s entrepreneurial paradise, or Robert Nozick’s pluralistic one), or are personally moved by, or attracted to, libertarian principles, Narveson’s work implies that you let irrelevant considerations influence your politics.

The second point – I raise it so early because it is the biggest hurdle to following along with Narveson’s book – is how unfamiliar a method of political philosophy contractarianism is, and so how counterintuitive is Narveson’s justification for libertarianism. For instance, when I am not trying to play along to moral philosophy, my default approach to figuring out what morally ought to be done is either to form a gestalt impression about the situation in which I find myself, or recur to some principle I’ve internalized or come to hold dear. (This may be an indefensible method of proceeding, but it is a psychological fact about me, and I think it’s how most people reflexively proceed.) Even within moral philosophy, those who deploy the method of reflective equilibrium (and most do) also consult their internalized ethical judgments, albeit going through the extra step of scrutinizing their truth and scope in the light of their other values.

To embrace contractarianism, on the other hand, is to embrace a method of moral reasoning that requires you to alienate yourself from your values precisely when you would ordinarily be most inclined to draw on them. The charm or attractiveness of a principle of justice doesn’t matter; what matters is whether everybody would agree to it in a bargaining context. What matters, in other words, is the outcome of a series of bargains, capable of being modeled, that yield consensus on how rights and responsibilities should be distributed. Note, very importantly, that there is nothing about the consensus that implies it need be more than tolerable – that is: better than no consensus at all – for any of the parties involved. In short, contractarianism requires us to think about morality without paying attention to our attraction to different principles. Contractarianism may purchase what morality must deliver (we will look at Narveson’s arguments that it does), but it is an unnatural way of thinking.

So much for setting the scene. Next post I’ll talk about Narveson’s argument for libertarianism’s coherence.

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Fn1 “The bounds of the law of nature require that no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or possessions. Some persons transgress these bounds, invading others’ rights and doing hurt to one another, and in response people may defend themselves or others against such invaders of rights” (Nozick, 10; internal quotation marks omitted).

Fn2 Narveson’s distinction between morality and justice: “[W]e can identify the area of justice with that in which literally coercive methods are, at least ultimately, in order, and other areas of morality with those in which they are not.”

Fn3 This version differs from Rawls’s related approach in a theory of justice in that it does not place the bargainers behind the veil of ignorance. Rawls explains the veil of ignorance as capturing certain features of morality. As he puts it in A Theory Of Justice:

One should not be misled … by the somewhat unusual conditions which characterize the original position. The idea here is simply to make vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice, and therefore on these principles themselves. Thus it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstance in the choice of principles. It also seems widely agreed that it should be impossible to tailor principles to the circumstances of one’s own case (Rawls, 16).

Rawls thinks – perhaps as a matter of metaethics, perhaps as a first order ethical view – that moral principles cannot be partial. Thus, Rawls is not trying to show that his principles of justice are good for each of us as we actually are; he is trying to show that they are what we would accept if we lacked the concrete information about our actual situation necessary to know what is good for us. A rejoinder, the theoretical force of which Narveson recognizes (but Rawls does not) is why should we care about a principle of justice that isn’t good for us as we actually are? (We are, after all, as we actually are.) Any reply from Rawls, presumably, would rest on the intuitive appeal or attractiveness of neutrality at the level of principle selection. Placing bargaining behind the veil of ignorance thus runs afoul of Narveson’s aversion to intuition.