A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

In my last post I promised an explanation of why I’m not a libertarian. I would now like to redeem that promise, however sketchily. In the same posting I also mentioned that if I had to characterize myself politically, the closest label would be “Red Tory”. I will clarify this as well.

Why I Am a Red Tory

A Red Tory is a conservative of a somewhat peculiar sort. Often, in everyday political discourse, libertarianism (like other positions of a “classical liberal” stripe) is mistakenly considered to be a “right wing” or “conservative” position, although I’m not really sure why. While libertarianism is notable for its staunch defense of the market order, conservatism proper has traditionally been associated with the critique of capitalism and the defense of a more traditional, agrarian, order. I suspect that libertarianism and conservatism have become yoked together in the popular mind because of a perceived shared association with the interests of the wealthy (and there is certainly some truth in this). In any case, there are important differences.

Libertarians defend individual liberty as a fundamental value, indeed the fundamental value. It is fundamental for them because it underpins another position, which we can call value pluralism. The core idea of value pluralism is quite simple: there are as many things of value as there are people who value them. Each of us has his or her own conception of the good life, and liberty is fundamental because it is what allows us to pursue our individual conceptions of the good life. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, each of us is involved in our own experiments in living, and each of us is best placed to judge of what will make us happy.

A caricatured version of conservatism, on the other hand, is held to believe that a society can only be kept coherent by a single shared conception of the good, and of a life based on it. Let us call this position value monism. Now, I do not agree with value monism. So in what sense am I conservative?

I agree that there are many valid conceptions of the good (though perhaps not as many as libertarians believe there are). But I also believe that collective experience and common sense have shown us that there are also some conceivable lives that are bad for those who live them. To use Mill’s metaphor again, there are some “experiments in living” that have already been tried, and the results are in: there’s no need to repeat these experiments, because they are eliminable as candidates for the good life.

For example, no parents would wish their child to become a drug addict or prostitute (which is why I hate the media euphemism “sex worker” — no journalist who is also a parent would view “sex worker” as a valid career choice for their own children, so why do they play at pretending that it is one for other people’s children?). And insofar as life presents certain traps that may lead one into such a life, the government has a legitimate role in eliminating them. Nay, not only a legitimate role — a duty.

Associated with this idea is the conservative’s view of human nature as fundamentally imperfect in certain respects. Libertarians, and liberals more generally, assume that we are each of us rational, and that left to ourselves, and with all the necessary information, we will make the right choices (or at least will readily learn from our mistakes, which are presumed to be mostly harmless). Conservatives are less sanguine about human rationality, otherwise we would not need protection from the sorts of things that reliably tempt people into bad lives.

I admit that the more I learn about human nature, the less confidence I have in its supposed rationality. The findings of social psychologists more and more point to the many systematic cognitive errors and biases to which we seem to be prone.

Against System?

Conservatives are often taken to be against rational systems, for as Lord Shaftesbury put it, “the most ingenious way of becoming foolish is by a system.” I agree with this sentiment, and for the following reason.

Knowledge is not something contained in any one mind. In some cases, as paradoxical as it may sound, knowledge is not to be found in any mind at all. Rather, it is deposited over time, like alluvial sediment, in our institutions, practices, customs, and ways of life. Therefore, conservatives are rightly suspicious of any attempts to destroy these to make way for new, more “rational” schemes, whether the scheme be Marx’s communism or Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. As experience ought to have taught us again and again, such schemes often have unintended consequences that are far worse than the ills they were meant to correct.

For the Status Quo?

This conservative attitude (for it is not really a theory) often leads to the accusation that conservatives are simply concerned to defend (to conserve) the status quo, regardless of how indefensible the status quo might be. They are accused of believing that, in Pope’s words, “whatever is, is right.”

This is not fair. The status quo is not the last word in any argument. But it ought to be the first word. Before we go about changing things, especially in favour of a new rational scheme thought up by projectors, bureaucrats, and stock jobbers, we should at least make the attempt to understand what we propose to get rid of. We should try to understand why things might be the way they are, and to preserve whatever might be good about it at the same time that we remedy what must go.

People have a fetish for novelty; they like to snatch at shiny things. But razor blades and broken glass are shiny too. It is often the dustier bottle that contains the finer wine.

Why I Am a Red Tory

So much for my Toryism. In what sense am I a Red Tory? If I were to list the items I believe the good society should have, my list would differ little from a social democrat’s. For example, I believe in a publicly-funded health care system, some form of unemployment insurance, and I even believe in a guaranteed minimum income. On the face of it, this puts me far to the left of the political spectrum in many jurisdictions. These things are certainly anathema to a libertarian.

(Incidentally, I do not believe in public education as it is now practised. It has proved itself an utter failure. On the other hand, my conservatism tells me we should keep it for the time being, because plausible alternatives — such as some kind of voucher system — seem impractical at present.)

Interestingly, what separates me from the left on these issues also differentiates me from libertarians, for I do not believe that people have a right to public health care or unemployment insurance. In fact, I am not convinced that people have rights to anything at all, at least not if we mean by “rights” something that is universal, natural, inalienable, and [insert your inflationary adjective of choice here].

Social democrats believe that people have a right to egalitarian social programs. Libertarians believe that people have a right to liberty, which would be violated by such programs. This indicates how unprofitable “rights talk” is. At best, I think such language is aspirational, a way of talking about things we might like to have. In another way, rights are like the Bogeyman: they’re useful to scare or awe people into good behaviour, but they don’t actually exist.

Instead, I believe that such social programs are best justified by appeal to collective experience, as well as by an impartial examination of history. These tell us that too much inequality undermines social solidarity and is bad for society. Furthermore, such social programs have proven themselves conducive to the collective health and happiness of society. We do not need to appeal to rights. We need only appeal to the needs of the community, and such an appeal is eminently conservative.

To those citizens of means who do not need such programs, who would rather opt out of contributing to them, and who feel like their pockets are being picked to pay for them, I would beseech them to reflect on how much of their own well-being is dependent on the well-being of the rest of society, a well-being that is buttressed by precisely such programs.

None of this implies that social programs cannot be improved with an eye to better administrative efficiency and effectiveness, nor should we necessarily give in to the temptation to expand them indefinitely. It is here that libertarian critiques may be of some service.

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