For the record: what I think about social justice and libertarianism

391360515I am occasionally called upon to answer for my political views. This post describes my views and their philosophical basis, and should serve as a reference for those who want to know what kind of sneetch I am.

In short, I am center-left with left-libertarian tendencies; see my results from to see how I fit with the current US political parties. A lot of people associate “libertarian” with the right-wing version that has gained some popularity within the Republican party. It should be noticed, however, that I can manage to have a majority agreement with all the left-wing parties and the Libertarian Party, while still being 95% incompatible with the Republicans. This ought to indicate that there’s more to the story.

This post gets a little philosophical. I’ve encountered a surprising number of people who are expressly anti-philosophical, and some who say they are more interested in “action” than philosophy. I choose to be philosophical because I want to have good beliefs based on good reasons. There are few things more ridiculous than action without reason. My moral and political philosophy is heavily influenced by Kant and Rawls, sort of like the “neo-Rawlsian libertarian” view described in this post by Kevin Vallier at  Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Unlike the anarcho-capitalist “large-L” Libertarians, I believe in a robust public sector and I support a degree of economic redistribution, especially for leveling inequalities that originate from discrimination or other systemic disadvantages. I am quite interested in the economic liberty of ordinary individuals, free agents, contractors and cooperatives. I am less interested in the alleged “liberty” of corporate entities. I further believe that the libertarian ideal is only achievable for adult persons who are in reasonably good physical and mental health, are adequately educated, are unconstrained by institutional discrimination, and who are able to meet basic life needs for themselves and their families without dependence on the consistency or quality of employment — so I believe the state should provide an extensive social safety net to maintain a framework that supports and sustains these conditions so that all individuals have a chance to be truly free.

I often refer to myself as a libertarian democrat (note the small l). This creates no end of trouble for me, because people tend to associate the “L” word with ultra-conservative super-capitalist folks like Ron Paul and Ayn Rand. I’m going to keep using the word “libertarian,” though, because it is the correct word to classify a political philosophy that emphasizes individual self-determination. My take on libertarianism is mainly focused on civil liberties and intellectual property (I lean toward left-libertarian version and I admire the concept of copyleft). I do not believe in the right-wing interpretation of “free markets” — in fact, I subscribe to the left-wing interpretation, summed up by this statement: “genuinely free markets and voluntary exchange cannot exist within the exploitative conditions of capitalism.” [see Wikipedia page on free markets].

Some Common Complaints

In political discussions, there are three frequent complaints about libertarianism (these typically come from conventional liberals and progressives):

  1. “Every libertarian gives a different version of libertarianism; there seem to be more versions of libertarianism than there are libertarians.” This is sometimes followed by an allegation of the No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy. First of all, diversity of views should not be surprising. It is a class of philosophies characterized by individual self-determination, so we should expect libertarians to be distinct in their views and to modify them frequently. The Libertarian Party USA defines itself as a “party of principles,” not as an itemized agenda of policy positions. Libertarians are characterized by a core set of principles, but have major differences in how those principles are applied to reach policy conclusions. YES, this is a problem for a political party. Second: If an NTS fallacy is committed, it would go like this: “True libertarians don’t believe in unregulated markets.” Obviously that’s wrong. But I have never observed this actual fallacy; instead I frequently see the NTS fallacy misidentified in statements like this: “The true definition of libertarianism does not require unregulated free markets, and opinions among libertarians differ.” That is a correct statement that commits no fallacy.
  2. “Libertarianism is refuted by evidence; but liberal/progressive ideas are evidence based.” This statement is wrong in two ways, and is dangerous in that it presumptively associates leftish ideas with unearned scientific credibility. There are plenty of factually erroneous claims circulating in any political camp. More fundamentally, though, libertarianism is a philosophical orientation about moral relationships, and about what kind of world we want to live in. No amount of “evidence” is sufficient to tell us what kind of world is best. To answer this question requires a process of introspective moral reasoning — a combination of logic, intuition and discourse that is informed by evidence but not determined by it.
  3. Libertarianism is built on faith.” Actually, many libertarian philosophies are built on pure reason, which is potentially just as bad. Anarcho-capitalism is not rooted in “faith” that the invisible hand will provide. Anarcho-capitalism is rooted in a conscious indifference to consequences. I won’t deny there are many extremists who take negative-rights theory to its ad absurdum extreme and seem perfectly happy to stay there. But there are also plenty of libertarian thinkers who understand that libertarianism is a fallible framework and an ideal that needs constant reinterpretation when applied to real social contexts.

Kant and natural rights

Many libertarians subscribe to a deontological view of ethics and rights. Although many libertarians seem to be allergic to Kant, he is in many ways the standard bearer for deontological ethics. There is a very libertarian-sounding exposition in Kant’s Science of Right, in which he defines a universal principle of right: “Every action is right which in itself, or in the maxim on which it proceeds, is such that it can coexist along with the freedom of the will of each and all in action, according to a universal law.” From this principle he went on to give an account of natural rights:

There is only one Innate Right, the Birthright of Freedom. Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another; and in so far as it can coexist with the freedom of all according to a universal law, it is the one sole original, inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity. There is, indeed, an innate equality belonging to every man which consists in his right to be independent of being bound by others to anything more than that to which he may also reciprocally bind them.

To Kant, this principle was an a priori fact arising solely from the nature of intelligent beings. He viewed it as similar to a mathematical truth, one that is unrelated to particular circumstances or preferences. This implies a system of rights that is indifferent to social circumstances and consequences — a common feature of libertarian philosophies. Consequentialists (e.g. utilitarians) can easily spot pitfalls in deontological theories, and vice versa.

My view is that morality arises from our particular intuitions and instincts as an intelligent species. From this perspective, deontological and consequentialist frameworks are both correct in that they model the latent reasoning that most humans use to make moral judgements. Coexistence of these theories introduces contradictions that are hard to resolve: consequentialism must be constrained by a more basic theory of rights (e.g. a constraint that we shouldn’t just execute all  criminals); but deontological constraints must be selectively ignored in cases when the consequences are critical (I believe in compulsory vaccinations, for instance). Sorry if that seems unhelpful, but I don’t think ethicists have constructed anything better than this murky soup.

Rawls and Social Justice

John Rawls articulated a particularly influential political philosophy that attempts to combine elements of Kant with the realities of social context. Rawls’ Theory of Justice (TJ) introduced the concept of an Original Position (OP), a hypothetical pre-existence wherein we contemplate the structure of society without knowing who we’re going to be. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Rawls suggests that the OP well models Kant’s central ideas…. In designing the OP, Rawls also aimed to resolve what he took to be two crucial difficulties with Kant’s moral theory: the danger of empty abstractness early stressed by Hegel and the difficulty of assuring that the moral law’s dictates adequately express, as Kant thought they must, our nature as free and equal reasonable and rational beings. Rawls addresses the issue of abstractness in many ways—perhaps most fundamentally by dropping Kant’s aim of finding an a priori basis for morality. Although Rawls’s use of the veil of ignorance keeps particular facts at a distance, he insists, as against Kant, that “moral theory must be free to use contingent assumptions and general facts as it pleases.” TJ at 44. Another feature that reduces the abstractness of Rawls’s view is his focus on institutions—on the basic structure of society. In this light, we can see his institutional focus as carrying forward Hegel’s insight that the idea of human freedom can achieve an adequately concrete realization only by a unified social structure of a certain kind.

I subscribe to both Rawlsian and libertarian frameworks for reasoning about moral and political problems. These are frameworks in that they provide a structure for reasoning, but they do not uniquely determine the conclusions on many problems. We still have to think hard about the best application of these frameworks on a case by case basis.

I’ll stop here to avoid turning this blog post into a poli sci dissertation. This should be enough to explain where my thinking is coming from, to those who want to understand my perspective.


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