Saturday, June 11, 2011

How to Defend Your Libertarian Beliefs at Parties

A recent exchange with a commenter got us thinking about how tough it is to be a libertarian in a world drunk on government power. The simple fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans (and the vast, vast majority of people in California) have little problem volunteering you, your checkbook, and possibly your job if it might give the government an opportunity to implement their version of paradise on earth. And if we ever want to live in a more free society, convincing some of those people that we have better ideas is unavoidable.

Yet the more we think about it, we're not convinced that many of the people who identify as libertarians actually have better ideas. The most obvious example comes from the Tea Party movement. Despite its libertarian veneer, we've seen nothing to suggest that it's anything other than a splinter group of Republicans who rediscovered their distaste for government spending sometime around January 2009; complaints about taxes ring hollow if you loudly support the bloated military and security state that requires them. But we're not here to rip the Tea Partiers, because we think they illustrate a flaw in the ideology of many self-proclaimed libertarians. That flaw is consequentialism.

Whenever we meet people who hold a political position we find appalling, their reason for doing so usually involves consequences: the government can do something that would be inexcusable from a private individual, if by doing so an even greater injustice is prevented or punished, or a significant social problem is solved. In other words, the ends can justify the means. If you're a neoconservative, you might be entirely comfortable with the PATRIOT Act and multiple overseas wars: those are just the means the government needs to keep us safe from violence. Similarly, if you're a liberal who favors generous welfare programs, you might be perfectly fine with the taxes needed to pay for them: surely the goal of ensuring that the poor don't starve is worthy enough that "we", as a society, should give the government the resources it needs to make that goal a reality. And if you're an environmentalist, you probably don't object to regulations that cripple economic growth and exacerbate unemployment: shutting down a few polluters and forcing people to use solar and wind power is a small price to pay to prevent catastrophic global warming. If you're reading this blog, presumably you don't like any of those things. So how do you convince such people that they're mistaken? Appealing to their emotions isn't going to cut it. You can wax poetic about liberty and prosperity, but the liberals will shriek about your heartlessness toward the poor, and the neocons will dismiss you as hopelessly naive about the world's dangers.

Ultimately, you're going to need an argument that shows these folks why they're wrong; in other words, an argument that can't be disputed without contradiction. Yet this is where it becomes a problem to think in terms of consequences. To explain, let's say you make an argument to us that Policy A is justified because its benefits outweigh its costs (i.e., a generic consequentialist argument). Well, one necessary condition for the truth of your argument would be that arguing itself is justified. When you make an argument, after all, you're performing an action that has costs and consequences. So how would you know that arguing is justified? Why, by concluding that the benefits outweigh the costs. Let's say we're a Senator on a Congressional committee that oversees Policy A; so, you could conclude that the benefits of convincing us outweigh the costs of spending your time that way. Yet a necessary condition of arguing is that you've thought of your argument in the first place; so, why would you have thought of it? By doing a cost-benefit calculation and concluding that the act of thinking up the argument was worth your time. Maybe you saw something about Policy A on TV and decided that educating yourself enough to make a good argument for it was the best possible use of that time. But where did you get the idea that educating yourself about politics was worthwhile? Since you don't believe in any rules prior to an action that would justify it, you must have weighed the costs and benefits of doing so at some point. Our sharper readers will notice a kind of infinite regress setting in: you can keep following the chain of causality backwards, but you'll never get to an action that's always justified, no matter what the circumstances, because for consequentialism the justification for an action is inseparable from the circumstances in which it occurs.

This might sound like academic meandering, but it's more important than that. If the process by which you've come to justify your argument for policy A can't be justified, then your argument for Policy A isn't justified either. This means that, if you're arguing with someone who disagrees with you, you can't point to an incontrovertible rule that would support your position. And if you counter that you have a belief based on a rule that applies in all circumstances, then clearly there are cases where the ends can't justify the means, which is another contradiction. This is true even if you're a libertarian. When you argue against welfare programs because they waste money relative to private charity, I might agree with you, but that's only because I agree with your cost-benefit assessment. But what if the private charities in your town are awful organizations, and are actually less efficient than government welfare? Would government welfare still be wrong? Yes, but you wouldn't be able to argue that on the basis of consequences.

Fortunately, the work of the Austrian social theorist Hans Hermann Hoppe offers an alternative to a consequentialist ethic for libertarianism. Hoppe's "argumentation ethics" approach focuses on the assumptions underlying the process of arguing for or against a given action. This process is, by definition, a conflict-free way of interacting with other people, and insofar as the act of arguing involves the use of scarce resources (e.g., one's time and energy), it pre-supposes self-ownership. One implication of this is that violence and argument (and, by extension, justification) are mutually exclusive: you can't simultaneously affirm and deny someone's right to ownership of their body without contradiction. The implications of this argument for libertarianism are critical: if aggression can't be justified because it rules out argument, then government can't be justified in using force against citizens or their property.

This result, of course, carries implications that make many libertarians uncomfortable. After all, the essence of minarchist libertarianism is that government force is undesirable in most cases, yet in a handful of circumstances (e.g., law enforcement, the judicial system, national defense) the forcible confiscation of private wealth is necessary. Yet this is just another argument about the ends justifying the means, with the same problems as the ones above. This would seem to suggest that the only set of social arrangements lacking contradictions is an anarchist one.

We realize that most people, even most libertarians, are ill at ease when it comes to considering a stateless society, and we understand where they're coming from. Most of the work we do on this blog is decidedly minarchist: we write about privatizing services and rolling back taxes and pensions, rather than wholesale obliteration of all government. Partly this is done out of a desire to provide a big tent, where liberty-lovers of all strains feel like their beliefs are respected. It's also done because we think the incremental battles on the path to a more free society are worth winning and celebrating. And we have no intention of altering that approach. But for us, it's hard to escape the conclusion that, as unpopular political beliefs go, minarchism is far tougher to defend on a philosophical basis than anarcho-libertarianism. At a minimum, anarchism is something that all libertarians need to grapple with and understand.


  1. Well written. If argumentative justification as an action and the associated action norms that make argument possible (i.e. various norms that must necessarily precede communication and logical argument) are not ultimately justified, then it's impossible to justify anything with argument.

  2. Thanks. Yes, Hoppe doesn't actually try to prove that justification is a necessary property of any action. What he basically says is that, if ethics exist, they must be consistent with private property.

  3. Excellent article!

  4. Your argument is built on theoretical and abstract concepts, which is probably the main reason why you can't win arguments at dinner parties. The kind of people who like to take part in these kinds of abstract conversations (in my experience) tend to be people who like to argue. They'll have their own viewpoint and won't accept defeat. The kind of people who don't like this kind of intellectual argument will just be switched off from the start.

  5. @Dennis: Um, I'm pretty sure it's contradictory to argue against argumentation. :)


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