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.

(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.

(This is based on a couple of conversations I had with Julian Sanchez, and they’re more his thoughts than mine.  I’m just trying to clarify my own thinking by writing about it).

Many libertarians base their political philosophy on the principle of self-ownership.  The principle of self ownership, according to most libertarians, leads to a Nozickian minimal state in which the government’s role is constrained to the protection of rights to liberty and property, the enforcement of contracts, and judicial dispute resolution.

The ultimate goal for these libertarians is to transform our society into a Nozickian “libertopia”.  This sort of view is easily applied to particular public policy questions.  Would policy x move us closer to libertopia?  Would the overall effect of policy x be to reduce or increase state coercion?  The answer to these questions, rather than the complex economic analysis often involved in weighing public policy options, determines which policy libertarianism recommends.

But libertarians don’t (or shouldn’t) just care about the abstract goal of inching toward libertopia.  They also (should) care about what overall effect a policy has on real world human freedom.  The problem is that focusing exclusively on reaching libertopia can sometimes lead one to support policies that are actually harmful to the cause of promoting freedom.  A good example of this is libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits some privately owned businesses (such as restaurants) from racially segregating their patrons (see Julian Sanchez’s Newsweek piece on this in the wake of the Rand Paul controversy).

A challenge for libertarians is to come up with some basis for favoring one policy over another when applying libertopia doesn’t work (also, for what kinds of public policy issues is libertopian analysis not a good option?).  More on this soon.