Monday, September 1, 2014

The Limits of Libertarianism don’t make it wrong (much less “a disservice to humanity”)

First, read this blog post.

I had a lot of fun reading it – the article was thoughtful, lucid, well written, and made some important points. I agreed with much of it. Were it phrased as a simple reminder to libertarians that our core ideology is not the be-all-end-all, discussion ending pinnacle of moral philosophy, I would agree with all of it. But it was not phrased this way, and unfortunately the author got a bit too overzealous in his claims.

Unlike the author of this piece (Will Moyer, I gather from the URL), I am comfortable calling myself a libertarian without being embarrassed by the narrowness of its applicability, much less thinking I’m doing a disservice to humanity by actively promoting it. As noted, libertarianism is merely a political philosophy. It is meant to set only the barest of rules for how people should interact with one another (or, more precisely, how they should not interact with one another), and to apply those rules to the field of government. I concede that this narrow field does not encompass the full spectrum of important moral matters. However, I’m not sure why observing this implies that affiliation with libertarianism precludes one from engaging with those other worthwhile ideas as well.

Moyer writes that after first becoming an anarchist:
“I still considered most of my beliefs to technically fall under the umbrella of libertarianism. But somewhere in the last few years even that association has faded. It took me a long time to articulate why, but that’s what I’m going to do now.”
The trouble is, what follows is not a good reason to stop considering his beliefs as libertarian, so much as an explanation of why they are not libertarian only. In alluding to a preference for left-wing libertarianism, or what he calls “libertarian socialism,” he does not argue that this set of beliefs contradicts more traditional right-libertarian beliefs. Instead, he merely explains that he has beliefs besides traditional libertarianism, on top of and in addition to it. The reader deduces that old-school, anarcho-capitalist leaning libertarianism is not the culmination of his rumination on opinionated matters. Not only is this unsurprising, I had thought it went without saying – even among avowed anarcho-capitalists.

Of course there are topics on which libertarianism does not opine. The author is correct that many of these topics are important; as he mentions, libertarianism says nothing about race, class, sexual orientation, or the patriarchy. But is this truly a weakness for an ideology that only claims to discuss politics? Must those things be considered inherently political matters? All ideologies have boundaries, and these mustn’t be confused with shortcomings.

Moyer seems to recognize this, conceding:
Granted, libertarianism – as a body of thought – doesn’t have to comment on every social issue. It can say nothing of race and gender and class. It can be silent on non-violent forms of hierarchy and inequality. But then it stands incomplete as a social philosophy.
But it is not a social philosophy – as the very libertarians he just quoted explained, it is a political ideology. So what’s his confusion?
That’s fine, especially if that is a conscious and intentional choice on the part of libertarians. We will focus our ideological work on this area and let other systems of thought cover everything else. But it certainly wasn’t something I was aware of when I considered myself a libertarian. On the contrary, I thought libertarianism offered a robust and complete analysis of society. I suspect others do, too.

I’m confused by the idea that any nameable ideology offers a “complete analysis of society,” or even that it could do so hypothetically. Society is a mighty big topic – do there exist even two people in the entire world with identical views on it? If the author really did expect libertarianism to answer every question worth thinking about in all of philosophy, he was not holding it to the same standard to which an average person holds comparable political philosophies. Communism may have class covered, but is it expected to thoroughly engage with questions of race and gender, in a way that’s uniform across all self-described Marxists? Feminism may have gender covered, but do all feminists have to agree on economic policy to share the title? For some reason, I doubt Moyer – well versed in the holistic spectrum of ideologies which combat entrenched authoritarian systems as he is – furrows his brow at feminism’s failure to come down on the morality of taxation.

But libertarianism is different, he argues, because:
Libertarianism is not understood as a specialized field like chemistry or biology. It is supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human social behavior. But to that end, its core framework is inadequate.
Who said that’s what it’s supposed to be? It seems to me every one of the libertarians he just quoted said precisely the opposite – that it is supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human political behavior. Chemistry and biology purport to be objective studies of physical things, which makes for poor comparison. Other moral theories allow better analogy, and within moral theory, there are varying ranges of specificity. A highly specific moral theory might be Originalism, which applies only to those political bodies entrusted with interpreting constitutions within regimes that meet a minimum threshold of legitimacy. A very broad moral theory would apparently be the author’s brand of “libertarian socialism,” which I’ll return to in a moment. And an intermediately specialized field of theory might be feminism, which offers important and broad-ranging implications for our everyday lives, but does so only in respect to one particular kind of human relations. Perhaps libertarianism also meets this same intermediate level of specificity.

Like libertarianism, feminism sees the world through a narrowed lens, and reproduces it as an incomplete, simplified, and truncated film. Does this mean feminism is wrong? Or might feminism be right within the portion of the story it attempts to explain? Are feminists doing a disservice to humanity by describing themselves as feminists, instead of humanists or intersectionalists or general, all-around do-gooders? Or can segmenting moral philosophy into topical subsections actually be productive to humanity’s overall discourse, by allowing those drawn to certain portions of the fight to specialize their advocacy and expertise?
Morality is an enormous and complex field that has conflicted brilliant people for centuries. Presenting digestible chunks of theory prevents us from biting off more than we can chew.

This is precisely the trouble with Moyer’s brand of “libertarian socialism”: it tries to swallow a set of topics so vast and controversial that few of its members can possibly agree on all of it, and so it chokes from the resulting internal discord. It cannot deliver a unified message. To see why, we need look no further than Moyer’s first alleged example of libertarian shortcomings: a neutral stance on children’s rights. Regarding child abuse, he writes:
[W]hat constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area. It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue.

I’m not embarrassed, for two reasons. Firstly, there’s nothing preventing a libertarian from coming to clear moral conclusions on the issue if they want to; it’s just that what a libertarian believes about spanking is wholly separate from the fact that she’s a libertarian. But secondly, I simply don’t think the issue is morally clear. Moyer lauds Jezebel for “taking a hard stance on aggression against children,” but the snippet he quoted left me thoroughly unconvinced of their position. I don’t think it is analogous to “legalized assault.” My parents spanked me as a child, but I never felt threatened or unsafe or abused or unloved. I’m not sure that my human rights were violated, or that others were bound to protect me from the treatment I “endured.” I also don’t think it was about making me into an “effective, obedient citizen.” As a libertarian, I actually became a somewhat disobedient citizen! I turned out alright.

I cannot know, of course, whether the spanking played any role in furthering or hindering my development. I’m no child psychologist, and I won’t pretend to have the answer. Maybe Jezebel is right, and there really is no positive outcome from “violence towards children” (even violence as relatively tame as a smack on the behind). But I think it’s at least plausible that Jezebel is wrong, that the methods practiced by parents for centuries to enforce consequences for misbehavior have some merit or effectiveness. I also think there’s some value to the principle that parents should have wide discretion in deciding how to raise their own children, whether or not some magazine’s editors approve of their tactics. There may or may not be a good type of spanking, but even if there is not, there may be a neutral kind, or a kind that is not so heinously bad as to become anyone else’s business (much less so bad as to warrant forceful outside intervention that breaks up a family).

Jezebel satirizes the apparent silliness of distinguishing between 10 and 11 strikes, but this only illuminates their own continuum problem; lest no physical contact at all be permitted, you do have to distinguish somewhere. If a 5 year old boy is wailing and throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, a mother is clearly justified in picking him up and physically restraining him from running into the next aisle. Of course, the mother would not be justified in picking up the 45 year old stranger next to her and physically restraining him, even if he were also throwing a tantrum. Clearly there is a disparate standard there: children do not have all the same rights as adults. If parents can wield some physical force on their children (as all agree), but cannot punch them unconscious (as all agree), there must be a dividing line which determines how much is too much.

The point you’d expect avowed libertarians to appreciate is that on morally subjective issues like this one, the line will be different for different people, and that as libertarians we’re supposed to be mighty tolerant of alternate views on questions of personal morality. Indeed, this “live and let live” approach to moral disagreements is one of the most appealing and central parts of the libertarian mindset. The human species has reached nothing remotely near a consensus on the issue of spanking children. The moral conviction that animates my willingness to incarcerate someone who punches a stranger on the street is nowhere near so strong or so certain regarding a parent who spanks their child. Intelligent people are likely to disagree about hundreds of things, so Moyer is entitled to his opinion and encouraged to express it as forcefully as he can. But part of being libertarian is that to whatever extent possible, we should each let others do their own thing. And if ever there were a morally subjective topic on which libertarians – and certainly the governments whose policies we seek to inform and reform – need not share the same opinion, that topic may be parenting.

Therein lies the wisdom of restricting libertarianism to the barest and clearest questions of universal moral tenets. The movement’s enforced neutrality on “aesthetic” issues is not intended, at least for me, as a dismissal of the importance of those issues. It is instead an attempt to preserve the purity of our brand by preventing its pollution with extra-libertarian theory. Those who preach divisive personal beliefs in our name misrepresent the ideas that truly unite us, and truth in advertising requires that we set the record straight.
So allow Matt Zwolinski, founder of Bleeding Heart Libertarians, to do exactly that:

“Libertarianism is not a comprehensive ethical philosophy. It does not tell us everything we need to know about how to be a good person, or a good neighbor. It does not claim that all actions that you should be free to do are equally virtuous, or even morally permissible. Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It is a theory about the proper size and scope of the state, and about the proper spheres of force and freedom in our lives. Accordingly, libertarianism as such has no answers for many of our most important moral questions. Rather, it holds that individuals should be left free, as much as possible, to answer those questions for themselves, in their own way.”

When properly understood within the field of study we endeavor to further, libertarianism’s contributions are incredibly valuable – with no scare quotes required around the word.

Update: Refuting Moyer’s briefer, related second argument

A helpful commenter named Pat reminds me of something I didn’t directly address:

“You didn't touch the most convincing part of his article- his discussion of the spectrum of constraint. I, like you, don't expect libertarianism to address all aspects of society. But the fact that in the one aspect it most claims to address, its binary model is so inadequate as an explanation of real life and is seemingly designed to give the most powerful free rein to use every method of social control except force -- that makes me extremely skeptical about both its analysis and its underlying motivation.”

Pat is correct I failed to directly address this second argument, but the reason is that I think it gets the same refutation as the first. If libertarianism needn’t address all aspects of society, it also needn’t address all sorts of constraint, so to me the second argument falls alongside the first. But perhaps I was remiss in not spelling this out, so I’ll do it here.

The segment of Moyer’s argument which discusses “the spectrum of constraint” reads as follows:

But choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological, and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is good. And – within the political ethic – even if it isn’t “good,” it’s still permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

Moyer includes in this paragraph a very simple graphic, designed to demonstrate his spectrum in all its fuzzy grayness. It’s a good start, but it needs some work. First, I’m none too fond of fuzzy gray areas; I think the scale would be improved with the addition of some thick black lines. If we are to draw meaningful moral conclusions about choice, we’ll need to go further than observing that many things influence on it; we should be specific in distinguishing and evaluating these things independently. When we organize our oppression model in this way, we see that there exist several categories of constraint within our spectrum, which it makes sense to define and assess these categories in isolation. This is because not all of the forces which lean upon human decision making deserve equal attention from social reformers. Perhaps alterable economic, cultural and social forces resulting from the behavior of other human beings deserve more attention than innate psychological or biological forces, for example. And perhaps, as libertarians have concluded, the use of violence warrants more concern than any of the above.

Moyer also confuses the meaning of an ambiguous word: permissible. When libertarians say that all non-coercive relationships are permissible, what we mean is that they do not justify the introduction of coercion to rectify them. They are permissible in the sense that permitting their existence is preferable to the alternative of forcibly disrupting them. We do not mean to say they are ideal, or that they must be permitted to continue unmolested by peaceful exhortations to voluntary change. Using his example, sweatshops are far preferable to laws which ban sweatshops, but that doesn’t mean we might not object to the general state of affairs which caused workers to be so desperate as to require sweatshop employment, or do every peaceful thing in our power to help those people. Many non-coercive activities can be morally improved upon so long as no force is wielded in the attempt to improve them.

Moyer continues:
A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class, or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up – by your parents, teachers, and peers – may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

We should not confuse freedom with wealth or privilege, and we should not equivocate the relative constraints which result from the absence of these things. Being constrained by one’s environment may be unjust, and at times it may be even less pleasant than being forcefully restrained by another person or group. But it is not the same as the forceful restraint, and should not be weighed the same in our moral calculus. These constraints are amply different in nature as to warrant separate descriptions with distinct words.

As we’ve made redundantly clear, the category of constraint libertarians seek to eliminate the initiation of violent force, with liberty being, by definition, the absence of that coercion. In the United States, the terms “personal freedom” and “individual liberty” have long been understood according to this libertarian definition. It is wise to acknowledge that there are also other forms of oppression besides the use of force, and laudable to fight these non-coercive forms too. But it is unhelpful to gloss over the distinctions between them using the same words associated with previously articulated wrongdoing.

A poor Chinese factory worker is far more desperate than a rich white businessman. His range of palatable options is tiny in comparison. He deserves our heartfelt sympathy and immediate assistance, for fate has dealt him an awful hand. He is drastically less wealthy and less fortunate and less likely to be happy than the rich businessman - but he is not less free.*

A black lesbian is treated differently growing up than a heterosexual white man. Her parents, teachers and peers may have had certain biases, expectations, prejudices, or norms that contributed to this disparate treatment. The way people like her were portrayed in the media and entertainment industries may have influenced her in pernicious and inequitable ways. All of this is a tremendous injustice which sympathetic people must absolutely put an end to. The black lesbian’s lack of white, male, or heterosexual privilege may make her less secure, less stable, less healthy, less happy, less emotionally balanced, or less likely to attain success – but they do not make her less free.*

*(at least, not on account of the poverty or lack of privilege alone. Seeing as the factory worker lives under a regime as totalitarian as China’s Communist Party, and seeing as the black lesbian likely lives under a discriminatory marriage code and prejudiced criminal justice system, each probably is less free, for reasons libertarians would be the first to point out).

Anyway, in response to Pat’s comment,  “the one aspect [of society libertarianism] most claims to address” is political liberty. It is not human flourishing or racism or sexism or religion or family hierarchies. Were it either of those things, its binary model would indeed be inadequate as an explanation of real life, because people can oppress people in all sorts of ways besides force. But when libertarians openly specify the particular sort of constraint they are opposing – the use of violence – the binary model is perfectly adequate as a means of opposing it. Either force is used/threatened, or it is not.

Libertarianism is not “designed to give the most powerful free rein to use every method of social control except force,” only to remove what we consider the most pervasive and unconscionable method of social control from their arsenal. That does not exclude the concurrent or eventual removal of the other methods, and that was the point of my entry.


  1. PS - As an aside, it is also not true that the only logical conclusion of consistently principled libertarianism is anarchism. Just because the initiation of force is wrong in the abstract does not mean it is never justifiable in context, as I argue here. Of course, we must hold state actors to the same standards as any other actor, and association with the state should never be used to justify a disparate moral standard. But there are situations in which I believe it just, and potentially conducive to the maximization of moral outcomes, for independent individuals or groups to initiate force on others. Whether or not you agree is a separate question, but whether those groups call themselves the state should be of little consequence to our moral calculus on that question.

  2. You didn't touch the most convincing part of his article- his discussion of the spectrum of constraint. I, like you, don't expect libertarianism to address all aspects of society. But the fact that in the one aspect it most claims to address, its binary model is so inadequate as an explanation of real life and is seemingly designed to give the most powerful free rein to use every method of social control except force -- that makes me extremely skeptical about both its analysis and its underlying motivation.

    1. You're right I did not directly address that part of his article - originally. I have added an addendum to the post which both explains why I did not, and tackles it in more explicit terms. Thanks for keeping me honest!