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Jul 18, 2013

No Man Is an Island (Not Even Libertarians)

Libertarians reject an expansive state. But this doesn’t mean they reject social bonds or the benefits of working with others to achieve common goals.

I’ve argued before that the state, by nature of its scope and institutional structure, corrupts the virtuous and attracts the vicious. I grounded these claims in an Aristotelian ethics, one that looks at the kind of people we ought to be and how such people behave.

Cardozo School of Law professor Ekow N. Yankah disagrees, asserting that it’s through the state that we achieve virtue. Thus not only does libertarianism undermine our quest for virtue, but it is also “totally at odds … with social science, our most ancient philosophical thinking about the nature of human virtue and most strikingly, our everyday experiences.”

If true, that makes libertarianism sound rather bad. Fortunately for libertarians, Yankah’s argument doesn’t work. Parsing exactly what that argument is, though, proves difficult. Conceptual confusions abound, and much of the essay amounts to assault on a straw man. So much is packed into what Professor Yankah’s written that I can’t cover all of that in just one post. But it’s all worth covering, because Yankah’s essay neatly encapsulates an all-too-common caricature of libertarianism and captures well the utopian thinking about the state that may be biggest barrier to a freer world.

So in this post, I’ll look only at Yankah’s distorted picture of libertarians as anti-social hermits who take “the romantic view that standing alone is virtuous.”

According to Yankah, libertarians are–or aspire to be–“self-sufficient and virtuous frontiers[men],” which he contrasts with a truer picture of “human beings as deeply social and political animals.” Our idealization of self-sufficiency leads us to reject the idea that “the best things we do depend on countless joint legal and political commitments.” We fail to recognize that “distinctly human virtues can only be developed when we act together to pursue a shared vision of a good live [sic].” And thus libertarianism stakes out a politics that would cut us off from the “heights of our capacities,” which “can only be reached by supporting the good life through our law and politics.”

So a libertarian is someone who thinks self-sufficiency is the highest virtue, rejects social ties, finds no value in shared conceptions of the good life, and sees no need for law or political commitments.

I don’t know about you, but this picture of libertarians certainly doesn’t match my experience. And it by no means describes me. Let’s start with the rejection of law.

Given that most libertarians are not anarchists, most libertarians agree that laws and a state to enforce them are necessary for a well-functioning society. Even anarchists see a need for law, but claim it can arise and be enforced without a state–that is, without an organization that “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order,” to quote Max Weber.

Libertarians want laws to protect our rights, and also laws to facilitate our working together on projects we can’t accomplish alone. This means libertarians don’t just see the need for a criminal code (prohibitions on assault, theft, murder, etc.), but also a system of contract law, property, and civil suits to allow us to live well with each other and feel secure in our persons and projects.

The idea that libertarians reject social ties and also the virtues found in working together for a common cause is even more baffling. The entire underpinning of the free market economics, so central to the libertarianism world view, is that by working together we can accomplish amazing things far beyond what any of us could do on our own. Professor Yankah offers this hypothetical as an example of the sort of thinking libertarians, he believes, reject:

Notice that our connections go deeper than material needs. In contrast to other animals, it wouldn’t be long after one secured food and shelter on the island before one started thinking, “Hmmm… I wonder if we can fashion a hammock? And what would it take to make some wine out of these coconuts, anyway?” Once the material necessities of life are secure, our rational nature is driven to find ways of living well.

All of which could be lifted directly from a intro to economics textbook, where the students begin with Robinson Crusoe and resource scarcity and move into the division of labor. Every libertarian knows this is how an economy works, and how cooperation leads to increasing wealth.

The only way to understand Yankah’s position, then, is to accept that “the state” simply means the same thing as “working together.” And that “politics” means the same thing as “social ties.” If libertarians would reduce the state, then they necessarily would reduce our capacity to work together. And if we would scale back politics, it means we favor impoverishing social ties.

But of course none of that’s true. Consider your most meaningful social ties, the ones that play a key role in enriching your life. Are they political? Do they involve interactions with and through government? Almost certainly not. Instead, they’re found in your family, your friendships, your church or charitable organizations. They come about through the places you work and the people you work with. These are ties that produce obligations and moral duties, but they are obligations and duties to which we bind ourselves, and not ones we are bound to through the threat of violence that lurks within all political decision making. Thus libertarians decidedly do not reject the value and virtue found in social bonds and in coming together to pursue a common purpose. Instead, we believe politics works against them. A state may be necessary to provide an environment in which we are all secure in a persons and property. But a state that grows too large, and that turns over too many of our choices to the political process, ceases to protect us from a Hobbesian war of all against all and instead returns us to it.

But then, it’s rather difficult to nail down exactly what Yankah thinks it means to be a libertarian. Especially when, in his penultimate paragraph, he tells us that “it’s not that libertarians all walk around shunning human contact; they need not deny the value of working together.” Yet that is, in fact, precisely what he spent the preceding ten paragraphs arguing.

In short, Professor Yankah has offered up a careful critique of a political ideology no one actually adheres to. He’s misunderstood libertarianism, and thus has advanced no real points against libertarianism.

This should trouble us. Because if someone as well-educated at Yankah holds such a distorted view of our philosophy, what must those less informed believe? A crucial early step in bringing someone around to your way of seeing things is convincing them you’re not crazy. And the portrait of libertarianism Yankah paints is nothing if not crazy.

But there’s more to Professor Yankah’s essay than attacks on cartoon libertarianism. He advances a positive theory, one that holds that a virtuous life can only be found in political engagement, in “ruling and being ruled in turn.” And that position, which I’ll look at next time, troubles me far more.