February 18, 2011
I’ve thought a bit more about what I wrote yesterday, and I didn’t address a common libertarian response to the sort of objection that I made. This response involves saying, “of course I’m not against [PICK ONE: protecting the planet from asteroids/ stopping the spread of aids/ giving food to the poor/ any other obviously desirable thing], I just don’t think that the government should have a role in doing it. Individuals should take responsibility for accomplishing these things through voluntary action.”
Maybe in libertopia private actors would have built a huge anti-asteroid missile defense system whose construction involved no rights violations (I’m skeptical), but in our world it is states alone that have the capacity to address this sort of problem. Given our current circumstances, the correct way of thinking isn’t to say, “if we can’t have asteroid protection without coercive state action, then I guess we’ll just have to accept that we’ll get hit by asteroids”. Instead, we should recognize that the state has a moral duty to protect us from asteroids (and prevent the spread of diseases, and feed the hungry) because moral duties in an ideal world aren’t necessarily identical to moral duties in our own very non-ideal world.
We live in a world with large, non-libertarian governments. Among the many non-libertarian things these governments commonly do are the obviously good things I listed above. It’s not clear how we get to libertopia from where we are now, and if government suddenly just didn’t do any of these things, then the consequences would be terrible. This is why the typical libertarian response doesn’t work: because even if states have power that can’t be morally justified, in our current social political context it is the state alone that has the capacity to prevent a lot of suffering.
September 9, 2010
(Continued from here).
What are the instances in which applied libertopian approaches to public policy can have effects that are on net harmful to freedom?
In my previous post on this subject, I mentioned libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits private businesses from racially discriminating between their patrons. Briefly, the problem with this position is that in the centuries preceding the passage of the Civil Rights Act, slavery, state-sponsored segregation, toleration of violence against black people, and other unjust policies pervaded throughout the South. The discrimination that blacks faced in the years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act was not the result of a bunch of individual, private decisions. Rather, it was the result of systematic racial oppression. Simply ending the state’s active participation in a racist society would not have fully addressed the problem. Thus, it is legitimate, from a libertarian standpoint, for the state to play an active role in fighting discrimination.
To generalize, in circumstances involving significant historical injustice, a policy that reduces state coercion may not be a good policy for promoting freedom.
I’m not going to get into it now, but I think that there may be a libertarian case for affirmative action (a policy that libertarians almost universally oppose) as way to remedy past injustices.
August 9, 2010
A lot of libertarians endorse the non-aggression principle, which states that the initiation of physical aggression is illegitimate. Seems like a good principle if you value freedom: we should all be free to do what we want as long as we don’t violate other people’s freedom to do what they want. This kind of thinking leads to Nozick’s popular (among libertarians) view that “taxation is theft”.
I bring this up because I have been thinking lately about a conversation I had about a year ago with Isaac Morehouse of the Institute for Humane Studies during an IHS seminar. We were debating the legitimacy of the welfare state (I was arguing that the welfare state is legitimate). Isaac made an argument that, to the best of my recollection, went like this: if you endorse the legitimacy of the welfare state, then this entails that you think that it’s morally legitimate for an agent of the government to go up to a rich person whose personal stash of wealth is subject to redistribution and demand that he pay his (disproportionately large as a percentage of his income) share of taxes. If he refuses, then the government agent may call in the coercive mechanisms of the state to physically force him to pay, even if that means imprisoning him and then breaking into his home and taking the money he owes out of the treasure box under his bed (or his bank account, or whatever).
How could any self-respecting liberty lover support such a practice? At the time of our conversation, I didn’t have a response to this non-aggression argument, but now I think that I do. In my next post, I’ll explain why I think the argument fails and why libertarians should abandon the “taxation is theft” objection to redistributive policies.