January 10, 2013 columns

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Libertarianism and Liberty, Part 1: A Complicated Relationship

Anyone who takes libertarianism seriously, either as an advocate or a critic, will before too long find themselves grappling with the question of how that doctrine should be defined and understood. What is it that one commits oneself to, precisely, when one identifies as a libertarian? What beliefs or values are essential to the view, and which are contingent and dispensable?

Now, it might seem as though this question has a rather simple and obvious answer. After all, what else could define a commitment to “libertarianism” other than a belief in liberty? Other political ideologies pay  lip service to freedom, and perhaps even hold it as one legitimate value among others to be balanced in the great political calculus. But what sets libertarians apart is their belief that liberty is the highest political value. 

As simple as this story may be, however, I think that there are good philosophical reasons for rejecting it. In this and in the next few posts, I’ll explain why.

Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s not exactly clear just what holding liberty to be one’s highest political value is supposed to mean. Like many other descriptions of libertarianism, it’s a good slogan, but a poor philosophical formula. There are numerous ways in which it might be interpreted, and many of those interpretations are mutually incompatible and yield contradictory guidance. And none of them are internally satisfying.

To see this, let’s look at one popular and superficially plausible interpretation. What it means to hold liberty as the highest political value, on this view, is to hold that liberty ought to be maximized. That is, in choosing between any two sets of institutions, or between any two public policies, we ought to choose the one that yields the greatest amount of freedom. On this measure, libertarians agree that free markets score better than socialism, and so are united in supporting the former over the latter. On the other hand, libertarians disagree among themselves over whether an anarchist society would really be more free than one governed by a minimal state, and so there is no single libertarian position regarding which of these two systems is preferable to the other.

That this view of libertarianism is easier to find represented among the critics of libertarianism than among its sophisticated defenders should be telling. I am unable to think of a single libertarian philosopher who defends a position like the one I am describing. But it was, for instance, the view of libertarianism at the core of Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch’s recent and popular critique of libertarianism and the workplace. For them, libertarians’ (presumed) commitment to maximizing freedom was inconsistent with the tremendous amount of control that libertarianism seems to allow employers over the daily lives of their employees - regulating what they wear, what they say, how many bathroom breaks they are allowed to take, and so on. If libertarianism really means maximizing freedom, they argued, then shouldn’t the freedom of employees matter just as much as the freedom of employers?

The standard libertarian response to such criticisms, of course, is to point out that employment relationships are voluntary, and so whatever restrictions employers impose upon their employees do not actually count as a violation of their freedom in the relevant sense. Personally, I don’t find this response to be all that persuasive. For starters, it simply assumes that what libertarians believe ought to be the case actually is the case - viz., that employment relationships are entirely voluntary. But this ignores the myriad ways in which coercion infests our present system, often to the benefit of employers and to the detriment of laborers. Second, the argument assumes that whatever is voluntarily agreed to cannot be a restriction on freedom. But this is either wrong or at least a very strange way of using the word “freedom.” Suppose I ask you to lock me up in your dungeon and throw away the key, perhaps in exchange for your writing a check to my child who I would otherwise be unable to support. However unimpeachable the contract may be on procedural terms, I am, once locked away in your dungeon, less free than I was when I was, well, free. Libertarians might be right in thinking that there is nothing morally wrong with the lack of freedom I now endure. But to infer from this that it must not be a lack of freedom after all is an abuse of language and logic.

The fundamental problem with this line of argument is its reliance on what philosophers call a “moralized” conception of liberty. Rather than understanding liberty as the absence of interference per se (or the absence of human-caused interference – add on whatever qualifications you like), moralized conceptions define liberty as the absence of unjust interference. So nothing counts as a violation of liberty unless it’s also unjust. This gets the “right” libertarian answer in the case of employee-employer relations – the liberty of employees is not violated because restrictions on their behavior are the product of a voluntary contract and hence not unjust. But it gets us the wrong answer in the dungeon case above. It also, I think, gets us the wrong answer in cases of criminal punishment. If, as many libertarians assume, violent criminals voluntarily forfeit their rights to liberty when they commit their criminal acts, then punishing them by imprisonment might not be unjust. But, surely, this does not mean that the criminal is, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, perfectly free when the policemen handcuff him, throw him in their police car, and lock him away in a cell.

Freedom and Justice are both important values, and ones to which libertarians do and should give their allegiance. But we should resist the temptation to suppose that they are the same value. That they are not the same entails that it is possible, in principle at least, that they may in certain circumstances come into conflict. This is a possibility that I will explore in a future post.

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