September 11, 2013 columns

Picking up Demos’s Gauntlet

Trevor Burrus offers some advice to those who want to argue against libertarianism.

Left-wing think tank Demos has created the Gordon Gamm Initiative (GGI) in order to “counter[] libertarian myths, and argu[e] for new, higher expectations for a more socially responsible role for business in society, and for strong government action to advance the common good.” They’re just getting into full swing. They’ve criticized Tad DeHaven’s report on corporate welfare, responded to Nick Gillespie’s opening salvo by claiming that the financial crisis was a product of libertarian policies, and invoked Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, which gives, in Matt Bruenig’s words, a “meaty historical and sociological takedown of the libertarian approach to the market economy.”

I welcome and am honestly excited about the GGI’s challenges to libertarianism. Just as Nick wrote over at Reason, the first thing we should do is pat each other on the back when such challenges are raised. Thirty-five years ago libertarianism received very little attention and certainly not a consistent stream of opinion pieces attacking us. If nothing else, no enemies means irrelevancy.

But now the gauntlet has been thrown down, and I’ll gladly pick it up—the “anti-Gordon Gamm Initiative,” if you will, though I certainly have nothing against Mr. Gamm personally. As long as the conversation stays interesting, I imagine many other libertarian thinkers will want to join in. I respect Demos as an independent, non-partisan voice that holds to its principles. I don’t believe they are shills for any interest groups nor are they hoping to remake society for their own benefit, two criticisms often leveled at us. I hope they will treat us with the same respect, and I hope this can be a productive and friendly conversation.

One of the first rules for having such conversations is to avoid straw-man arguments, which are unfortunately quite common in political debates. Many people are ignorant of libertarianism, including some of our most vociferous critics. Libertarianism is a house with many rooms—anarchists, minarchists, voluntaryists, left libertarians, consequentialists, deontologists, etc.—and many of the most vehement debates are among ourselves. Yet we still agree on many things, and clarifying those broadly held libertarian positions can help further beneficial discourse. (I understand that many libertarians may take offense to some of my broad descriptions of libertarianism. That’s typical of libertarian schisms. I think that what I’ve outlined here, however, describes the heart of the libertarian bell curve.)

Thus, I’d like to make some pre-emptive clarifications for those at the GGI so they can avoid falling into the same traps as other critics of libertarianism. If the GGI’s goal is to convince libertarians to abandon the ideology or to persuade those who might become libertarians to avoid it altogether, then I offer these tips:

We are not anarchists. Well, at least not most of us. Yet many criticisms of libertarians treat us as so. It is common in political rhetoric to “extremify” your opponent—for example, sometimes it seemed as if the Romney/Obama election was between “the Anarchist” and “the Socialist”—but that sort of dog whistling is hardly conducive to productive conversations. Yes, we are very skeptical of government, but that’s not anarchy.

It will also not help to extremify us in other ways. In this post, Matt Bruenig has “fun times with libertarians” by discussing how property rights absolutists have no answers to basic questions, such as how to deal with easements by necessity. He then concludes that, if we accept one type of property encroachment for the sake of someone’s well being then we must accept all types of property encroachments performed for the sake of well being. This is a very odd conclusion in general, but it is one that could only be relevant to pure property rights absolutists. But very few libertarians are property rights absolutists.

Moreover, like so many difficult questions in any political philosophy, we ponder these questions too, as can be seen from this Libertarianism.org debate over the non-aggression principle. We are usually our own best critics.   

We care deeply about the poor, the helpless, and the marginalized. In fact, the forebears of libertarianism practically invented it. Many attacks on libertarians fall short because they imply that libertarians are libertarians because it hurts the poor and the marginalized while helping the rich and the establishment. These charges are laughable. It may be the case that those are the effects of our policies, but that’s an empirical question. We will not cede the moral high-ground to those whose first impulse is to use government simply because they call the new departments the “coalition to help people.” 

We are not anti-community, and we do not deny the social bonds that are constitutive of a well-lived life. We are not atomistic, selfish individualists. Well, at least most of us aren’t. Are some libertarians unfeeling and selfish? Yes, as is true with any political ideology. But most libertarians believe strongly in community, and we believe that overweening governments are often parasitic to true community. Sometimes this is blatantly obvious, such as when governments declare thriving communities to be “blighted” and tear them down in the name of progress. Other times it is less obvious, such as when Darwinian and Christian fundamentalist neighbors hate each other because they are fighting a tooth-and-nail, zero-sum battle over how each other’s children will be educated.

Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren were right: we are all in this together and no one got where she is alone. Community is vital. Yet to conclude from this that government is an instantiation of community is not only strange, it is downright perverse. 

We are not “market fundamentalists,” a term many have used to describe us. We are “strong market presumptionists,” some stronger than others. We presume that markets will supply goods and services more efficiently than governments, create more innovation, engender more harmony, and be more congruent with what people actually want. Every part is important. Inefficiency means waste, and waste means poorer, less enriching lives; innovation is the ultimate source of human flourishing; harmoniousness is crucial for social beings; and having congruency between what people want and what is provided is paramount. Governments are very good at providing things that only a select few actually want, whether it is statues of dictators or roads to nowhere, and then making everyone else pay for them.

When markets fail, the costs must be realistically compared to the costs of government failure. We do not presume markets are perfect, and we do not believe that a libertarian society will put an end to all problems. This point is crucial. Our ideal society, whatever form that takes for any type of libertarian, will still have pain, suffering, injustice, greed, rapaciousness, people preying on the weak, and callousness. Any human society will suffer from these problems.

Because both governments and markets are imperfect, imperfection must be compared to imperfection. And this must be done every time. It makes little sense to attack a libertarian proposal for privatizing education on the grounds that it will fail some children (a point I fully grant) when the current public education system fails millions of children every day.

The same goes with any libertarian proposal—they must be comparatively analyzed, not absolutely analyzed. The question must be “is X market solution better than Y government solution?,” not “does X market solution achieve perfect results?”

Libertarianism is the only prominent political ideology that consistently has to deal with questions about the imperfectness of our solutions as if they were de facto refutations of our position. Perhaps some of that is our fault—some libertarians certainly come off as utopians. Perhaps it is also because our critiques and solutions are often novel, which of course doesn’t mean that we’re wrong. But, as Bryan Caplan has astutely pointed out, it is no more a refutation of our views to say, “What if an elderly person gets defrauded out of his entire retirement and the perpetrator vanishes into thin air?” or “What if a child is starving on the street, and no one voluntarily feeds him?” than it is to ask more pro-government people, “What if the government denies you permission to legally work?” or “What if the President decides your ethnicity is a national security risk and puts you in a concentration camp, and the Supreme Court declares his action constitutional?”

Government actions must be authorized. Like every prominent Enlightenment-era political thinker, we view government as a unique type of authority that must be justified from principle. That justification must be based on authority—that is, the moral prerogative to command others and to use force to back up those commands—and not outcomes. It may be that a universal health care system will make everyone happier, but that does not convey authority any more than a study that shows a type of haircut makes people happier grants government the authority to mandate that haircut.

After all, most people permit government to do things to people that no other entity can morally do, such as locking someone in a cage because he put a particular substance in his body. If a person or a group of people did this—that is, if they became a roving band that imprisons people “for their own good” if they take particular substances—they would be rightly called monsters regardless whether the substance was actually harmful. We take this difficult question of justifiable government authority very seriously. 

Those are just some of the misconceptions often heaped on libertarians. We are not, of course, the only political ideology to face misconceptions. I’m sure Progressives are sick of being called socialists, of being accused of totally opposing markets, and of only favoring redistribution because they are envious of the rich. Interestingly, these misconceptions are oddly parallel to those about libertarians being anarchistic, market-fundamentalist poor-haters.

Just goes to show that, in general, political rhetoric could use some cleaning up. Hopefully any ensuing debate between us and those at the GGI will serve as an example.