Thursday, September 3, 2009

The tangled libertarian web

This is an interesting post on the different strands in the libertarian movement. It strikes me that the distinction Manzi draws is essentially between dogmatic (liberty-as-ends) and pragmatic (liberty-as-means) libertarians. I definitely fall into the latter category - while I do value personal autonomy as a good in-and-of-itself, I do not think the set of cases in which the government has a legitimate right to restrict it is limited to laws enforcing contracts and prohibiting actions which directly and materially harm others. There are such things as collective action problems, for which solutions cannot be devised unless people are compelled to cooperate by government action. I don't think, for example, that industrial polluters would have cleaned up their act without government legislation forcing them to do so - as one look out the window at the smog-ridden skies in any of the industrialized regions of China will tell you, markets, being relatively localized phenomena with strong incentives toward self-interested behavior, have a very limited ability to exert pressure on companies to behave in an environmentally responsible way. I also find the tendency of more dogmatic libertarians to fetishize personal liberty as if it were always and everywhere the highest of civic goods rather problematic. There are certain situations where private and public interests are in conflict, and I do not see why the former should always win out. I am instinctually inclined toward the libertarian position on hotly debated topics like drug legalization and prostitution, but opponents of eliminating all restrictions on these behaviors have presented enough persuasive evidence that doing so would have a deleterious effect on society that I am forced to concede that they may have a point. In such cases I continue to argue for the merits of personal liberty, but do so cognizant of the fact that it is not the only consideration and that 100% personal liberty, 0% social consideration may not be the correct balance to strike. I think this sort of non-dogmatic approach is psychologically and politically healthier, as it allows us to adapt to changing circumstances, as well as more likely to result in meaningful movement in the direction of increased personal liberty - it's a lot easier to convince people that a relatively harmless drug like marijuana ought to be legalized if you're not simultaneously insisting that the effects of nasty stuff like crystal meth, which really does destroy peoples' lives and have a disruptive influence on communities, are purely a private concern. The role of libertarianism should be to limit government interference in the lives of citizens to situations where there is a clear and compelling rationale for it, and to make sure it is as unobtrusive as possible - not to oppose it entirely.

Unfortunately, I don't feel that nuanced libertarianism is well represented in contemporary national politics. The only libertarian figures with any degree of national prominence seem to be either "git yer stinkin' librul hands off mah guns n' money" antigovernment cranks (Ron Paul) or political sideshows (Arnold Schwarzenegger). And those two may be the last of a dying breed. The takeover of the GOP by the religious right has left up-and-coming libertarian-leaning politicians without a political home. Hopefully a few years of liberal excess and Republican electoral debacles will change that.

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