About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review by the title above. Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)
I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.
The column argued, in brief, that libertarianism’s philosophical anthropology, starting with the claim that “there is no social entity . . . . there are only individual people” (Nozick), is historically and anthropologically dubious. Most human cultures by far understood and understand the individual as first the product of communities and only secondarily endowed by the community with some personal autonomy. Americans are “weirdly” likely to “conceive of themselves primarily as self-contained individuals” rather than as “interpersonal beings intertwined with one another in social webs” (quoting Henrich et al) and we live in a strangely libertarian society. Similarly, libertarianism makes a dubious empirical claim. The notion “that government which governs best governs least . . . .” is belied by the data. Whether comparing early America to modern America, or today’s America to other western nations, the evidence points to more government being, up to a point we have hardly approached, better for more people.
Seeking the Good
One critique is that, in describing the self-centeredness of western cultures as “weird,” I was rejecting individual human rights and embracing subjugation as natural and good. Yes and no. To say that our notion of the self is weird is to make a sociological observation; the statement neither disowns nor deems the idea as “bad.” I am as much a product of this culture as any typical American and therefore think accordingly and value individual rights. (Take the example of marriage. The idea that two very young people should, based just on their personal feelings and independently of family or community control, decide who to marry – and therefore which kin lines to connect – is an historically and culturally bizarre notion. Still, I appreciate having been free to pick my own wife and I grant – no, I don’t have the right to “grant” – I recognize my children’s right to do the same. Nonetheless, in sociological perspective, young people marrying for “love” is bizarre.)
The issue really is the matter of balance, seeking the optimal “good” somewhere between the poles of suffocating community and anarchy. But good for whom? The libertarian push for much less government in America is, the historical record suggests, good for Me – if Me is wealthy or, should things get dire, if Me is well-armed. Everyone, of course, would be “free” – free to sleep under a bridge, to make the best deal he or she can with the powerful. From some points of view, that trade-off, that there would be a few winners and many losers, is fine. It is the price of liberty and individual liberty trumps all. However, it does not trump all in western tradition; the Abrahamic religions, utilitarianism, secular humanism call for or even demand that the fortunate and the powerful sacrifice for the wider good.
(By the way, the idea that free-will philanthropy or general good-heartedness can, absent an enforcing government or commanding church, temper the side-effects of unrestrained self-interest or can care for the less fortunate, has no historical support – see, e.g., here.)
As the original column pointed out, the evidence is mounting – an even newer study is reported here – that, in the range of affluent democratic states, the greatest number get the greatest good where government plays a greater role than it does in the U.S. Conversely, the U.S. has tried small steps toward smaller government in the last 40 years – deregulation of businesses, stifling the growth of state employment, reducing taxes since 2000, and so on. These steps have coincided with terrific improvement for a few and worsening conditions for average Americans, a reduction in the common good.
Seeking the Possible
The second charge is that I had cavalierly dismissed the possibility of a libertarian utopia. Critics pointed out that whether past human societies provide support for libertarian assumptions is beside the point; the historical past provides no precedent for, say, free speech, the end of slavery, or gender equality, and yet these ideals are now within reach. Can we not build something new?
My initial column was in part simulated by Michael Lind’s essay arguing that there are no examples of actual libertarian polities and rejoinders to his essay. Libertarians’ replies are reminiscent of die-hard Marxists’ answers to criticisms of “really existing [state] socialist societies.” Yes, the USSR and Mao’s China were failures and horrors, but they were not good tests of the program, many Marxists insist, because “true communism” has never really been tried. Similarly,“true libertarianism” has not been tried (although there are efforts under way). Nonetheless, the “really existing” examples of small-government societies have historically entailed severe inequalities, insecurities, and worse.
Just as the utopian, egalitarian, from-all-according and to-all-according society is logically possible but sociologically implausible and so not worth the risk, so too the utopian libertarian society. I’ll pass, thanks.