06.24.11

Gray libertarianism

Posted in Liberty at 19:55 by RjZ

It’s a bit of link-bait to argue you’re otherwise erudite essay on the momentous recanting of his philosophy by the father of modern libertarianism as The Liberty Scam, but hey, who can blame magazines and newspapers these days for that? The article, much longer than my comments here, is an excellent piece which will give libertarians especially pause, and encourage each of us to reconsider her own world-view.

Some time ago, I wrote about some guidelines by which I self-identify as a libertarian. My simple post would have made some of the commenters on Steven Metcalf’s Salon piece happy, for its lack of big words and philosopher’s names, but, in itself, it didn’t say much. Frankly, that actually was part of the point.

Where Metcalf takes an illustration from Robert Nozick’s seminal book Anarchy, State, and Utopia and knocks it down for being an insufficient example of real-life libertarian society (he’s right!), I think it’s pretty reasonable to suggest that no thinking person considers society quite this simple.

Libertarianism should be a set of principles that enable us to make decisions about real society in such a way that our individual rights are not infringed upon. This is the great achievement of Nozick’s book: declaring humanism as the true support for libertarianism (and thereby wrestling it away from those who suggest that socialism the truly humanist system). Metcalf kindly credits Nozick with the concept that “Society is unreal not because individuals are brutish but because they are dignified.”

I catch slack from many libertarians for the things I actually allow government might be the best choice for. Most libertarians agree that infra-structure and public goods are within the realm of the government. The sticky part comes when trying to define what is truly within the public good and what isn’t. (Take a moment to read that link, as the definition is intended to be rather narrow.) Lighthouses are a classic example of a public good, but education isn’t so easy to classify as one. Still, I, for example, concede government is not out of place providing some services in concert (some would say competition) with private institutions. And when we disagree, we must admit, it ain’t the end of the world just because the government got involved.

The 1975 Nozick might have had trouble admitting, for example, there are some activities where the incentives of a free market will never lead to the results that most individuals would desire. Health care, in general, often falls into this area, and more specific examples are easy to suggest. How should, for instance, the free market deal with orphan diseases? Orphan diseases are are often excruciating or even deadly, but are also extremely rare. The free market will never be able to justify the expense of research to cure them as so few will ever pay for the treatments, but as anyone might become a victim of one (or might have, if they had been born with it) we all could benefit from investment in such research.

Metcalf tells that more than a decade after Anarchy, State, and Utopia was published, Nozick wrote “The libertarian position I once propounded, now seems to me seriously inadequate.” With no uncertain glee, Metcalf takes this as proof that the whole thing was a failure. Of course Nozick was simply recognizing that his initial over-simplification was insufficient. And here we do, indeed, owe Metcalf a debt of gratitude for digging this all up, again. For, as I said in my original post, perhaps it’s time for us libertarians to take back the party from the crazies and extremists. The world isn’t simple, dualist, yin vs. yang. There are shades of gray and we have to live with one another in an effort to have all that free-trade in the first place.

Libertarianism makes for a truly humanistic guidebook that is both simple and truly preserves human dignity. When deciding how we wish to tax each other and what services to provide with that money, we must reflect on the anti-social danger we do to each other when that wealth is squandered on ideas that some part of society is sure is a good thing while another couldn’t imagine a greater sin.

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