How Clever!

I suppose most political/philosophical criticism is glib, but it is the libertarian’s unique fate to receive glib criticism from both major political tribes. Libertarians, as few and un-influential as they are, are apparently threatening to the majority tribes, progressive liberals, neo-liberals and cultural conservatives. The glib critic seeks to find a shortcut to dismissing the entire libertarian endeavor. They will find and name something as *the* foundational element of libertarianism, detect a flaw or contradiction, and declare that because this flawed element is foundational, it undermines the entire broad and inclusive school of thought. In this search for “one devastating takedown to rule them all”, Strawmen and sweeping generalizations are the first tools to hand. Broad and heavy claims rest on the spindly legs of glib and narrow criticism.

Getting to know any school of thought requires you to pass through the stage where you realize just how little you know. No matter how clever and witty you think you are, if you think you’ve found one simple key that unlocks and destroys a large, diverse, and debate-tested body of thought, the odds are heavily against you. Blaming a school of thought that has barely had any political influence over time for the evils of the modern world, well, that’s priceless.

The knee-jerk liberal playbook is particularly annoying. They will reduce libertarianism to one of two schools – Ayn Rand’s or Anarchy. Rand, whose rhetorical clumsiness and strange lifestyle make particularly rich fodder, attempted to borrow from the religious toolkit to sell her ideology. She produced allegories, stories and sermons decrying the evils of those who would violate self-ownership, and she created an “Objectivist Epistemology” which attempted to build her philosophy from inviolable first principles. She had some limited success, measured by booksales and attention, which seems to drive her detractors nuts. Rand’s books are nearly as fanciful and improbable as religious texts – without the patina of tradition and millenia of serious interpretation – and are therefore ripe for satire. The Epistemology‘s attempt to characterize her beliefs as pure reason, and require no axioms or assumptions, are not terribly convincing.  These qualities hardly make Rand unique. Nonetheless, Rand followers are a tiny corner of libertarian thought, and even if you find her rhetoric clumsy and overheated, or show her reasoning to be porous, that hardly constitutes an authoritative takedown of laissez-faire, self-ownership, the primacy of individual rights, any other broadly libertarian principles or even Rand’s body of work. The Ad-Randium argument is basically “Rand is selfish and her books are clumsy and self-centered-sounding, therefore so are you”, or “you are just a free-market fundamentalist”. It is the mirror image of “you guys are a bunch of tree-hugging, handwringing Marxist hippies” and the libertarian-focused complement to “you are an intolerant bible-thumper”.

Another liberal favorite is to call libertarians anarchists and tell them to go back to the “libertarian paradise” of Rwanda, Sudan, or Afghanistan. Calling all libertarians anarchists is like calling all liberals communists. First of all, it simply isn’t true. There are far more minarchists than anarchists within libertarian thought. In fact, the anarchists I’ve encountered do not self-identify as libertarians in the first place. The vast majority of libertarian thought you will encounter simply advocates restraint in defining the power of the state. The idea of the “night watchman” state is the most prevalent government analogy for the role of government in libertarian circles. Certainly in my case, while libertarianism matches my beliefs best, of the choices I see, I am no more an anarchist than a goat farmer.

When you try these sorts of inward apologetics outside your own ideological tribe you are either ignored or have your head handed to you. So the smarter folks move on to more sophisticated versions of the same gambit, requiring that you find a more central idea or thinker to serve your facile synecdoche for an entire school of thought. An awful lot of political punditry is woven from this cloth. For example, a classmate of mine attempted to dismiss both Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia AND libertarians generally by thoroughly misunderstanding and mischaracterizing Nozick’s famous “Wilt Chamberlain” thought experiment, then holding his strawman up to ridicule*. This, along with smearing the alleged corporate sponsorships of other libertarian thinkers, apparently, obviates the need to take anything else Nozick or other libertarians says seriously, justifies a few paragraphs of pure snarky ad hominem, and then, through some unspecified mechanism, gets him to this hilariously inapt point:

Large-scale, speculative risk, undertaken by already grossly overcompensated bankers, is now officially part of the framework, in the form of too-big-to-fail guarantees made, implicitly and explicitly, by the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the “libertarian” right moves to take the risks of unemployment, disease, and, yes, accidents of birth, and devolve them entirely onto the responsibility of the individual. It is not just sad; it is repugnant.

So now all sorts of non-libertarian ideas have become “part of the framework”!  It’s quite a trick.   Metcalf leaves a huge slippery slope undescribed and ungreased, and fails to reckon with the outright antipathy of many modern libertarians to the Fed and bailouts, as well as even (alleged corporate shill) Hayek’s support for minimum income guarantees.

It’s actually a step up from Krugman and Ann Coulter territory. He read a corner of the literature and tried to think critically about it.  Yet any college philosophy student can do the same to a major thinker, even with far less obvious misreading of the target, and take home a gentleman’s “C”, or perhaps an inflated “A-” if the professor shares their prejudice.

I repeat: Getting to know any school of thought requires you to pass through the stage where you realize just how little you know. No matter how clever and witty you think you are, if you think you’ve found one simple key that unlocks and destroys a large, diverse, and debate-tested body of thought, the odds are heavily against you.

Which brings me to another classmate, who had this to say on Facebook.

My umbrella meme for 2014: Libertarians are the new progressives. Which of course means that they also are the new Communists (sorry; proto-statists). As I have a lot of Libertarian friends, I should explain that. Simply put, religion is the thin line beween freedom and totalitarianism; because religion, and only religion, can escape state control. Once something – anything – falls under state control, it is marginalized beyond recognition. Look at UVA and college rape, as an example: the argument for false accusation is that the ends justify the means. That is always the Communist argument. “Who cares if this one person is innocent or gulity, we have a greater cause to address.” Libertarianism is a halway house of delusion that you can have the fruits of freedom without the cultural antecedents of freedom. Religion offers a permanent veto to state choice. The better Libertarians get at explaining their arguments for “freedom,” the tighter the noose of Libertarian control and the faster they go down the toilet.

Mark starts with an inflammatory statement: “Libertarians are the new progressives (proto-statists)”. Later on he draws a direct causal inference between libertarian thought and utilitarianism , asserts, without evidence that “only religion can escape state control”, and wraps it up by implicating libertarians in the miscarriage  of justice at universities struggling ineptly with protecting rape victims and making a mockery of any presumption of innocence. His argument between these statements is that without religion to buttress our basic norms, libertarian thought devolves into utilitarianism, which he blames for the missteps of college ‘justice’.

That bit in the middle is an interesting point. I wish he had limited his claims to just that.  I discussed it with him briefly at first (swallowing, for a time, my offense at the sweeping generalization in which it was buried). Shared culture, and particularly religion, have been a powerful foundation to help a society hew to the basic principles of governance that will define the role and limitations of state power. I’ll address that in another post.

But let’s stipulate for a moment that he’s right – natural law does not provide immutable bedrock principles (in particular, self-ownership), and therefore may not provide the basis for government. This certainly poses problems for libertarians, but naming it as the reason that libertarians are proto-statists stumbles over a number of inconvenient obstacles:

  • Inexplicably, Mark has decided that libertarians can’t be religious, or find their basic principles in religion. Libertarianism is not atheism or vice versa.
  • Many ideologies are based on foundational ideas that aren’t compelling to society, therefore they they may not have the shared authority to govern. That doesn’t magically turn them into their opposite. Buddhists have generally not been able to govern, but that doesn’t make them violent.
  • There is no natural connection between the stipulated weak foundations of libertarianism and more extreme forms of utilitarianism (“the ends justify the means”). Even if natural law were as weak as he says, non-religious libertarians would still try to use it as a basis of government.
  • Freedom has many and complicated cultural antecedents, and the values of freedom are appreciated across an increasing number of religous traditions (almost all of which require surrendering yourself to an authoritative deity). Freedom of Speech, for instance, now has deep cultural antecedents in the United States, and it not at all understood to be derived from divine authority.
  • As the Nozick example shows (to non-Metcalfs), libertarian thinkers are quite concerned with the fairness of *process* as well as the fairness of results. “who cares if this one person is guilty, we have a greater cause” is neither a recognizably libertarian thought process nor an outcome of libertarian thinking. Mark seems to think that if our principles aren’t authoritative to society, they will change shape into something beyond Peter Singer’s version of utilitarianism. Not only hasn’t this happened, he fails (in 50 subsequent comments and links) to show how it might.  He might also grapple with Nozick’s exhaustive refutations of utilitarianism as an example of libertarian thought on the matter.
  • Libertarianism’s lack of religious foundations leads to how colleges handle rape accusations?  It’s hard to know where to go with that one.  First of all, where, exactly, was the libertarian in that process, where is the the state power?

In the end, Mark is identifying a real problem with the potential *effectiveness* of libertarian ideology as a basis for describing the limits of government. However, he fails to show the superiority of his substitute. Worse, he has buried that point in an offensive and indefensible sweeping generalization suggesting that the people he is supposedly trying to reach are simply evil, and responsible for the world’s impending doom.  It reminds me of how atheists recite Bible stories with dripping condescension for their utter fancifulness and internal contradictions, then seek to dismiss the entire religious tradition. They both read like inward apologetics to me.  They preach to the choir.


*Metcalf argues that Nozick is claiming the analogy justifies modern capitalism, yet the Wilt Chamberlain example doesn’t resemble a capitalist system. Metcalf totally misses Nozick’s point with this thought experiment: He is not, as Stephen seems to say, trying to justify the status quo, or to provide a complete analogy to modern capitalism. Nozick is illustrating how a supposedly perfect (“patterned”) distribution of resources might be disturbed by a series of events that are entirely benign and justifiable. Nozick would indeed argue that many of the distributions of resources practiced within our current system are not just undesirable outcomes, but arrived at in an undesirable fashion (rent-seeking, monopolistic practices, etc.). Metcalf also inexplicably says Nozick confuses human capital with all capital, and that Nozick would defend the wealth earned by various outlaws and rent-seekers.One can only arrive at Metcalf’s conclusions if you stop reading after the Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment, and revert to the libertarianism-as-anarchism trope.  In fact, Nozick argues exhaustively for justice in acquisition (in the “State” section); he suggests that wealth must be obtained and transferred according to the principle of justice, factoring in historical and current context in addition to the increased value of the property caused by individual efforts.  Finally. in addition to trying to pin the economic sins of the modern world on libertarians (see above), Metcalf makes a long argument about how imperfectly capitalist systems allocate resources, which is another liberal trope about “free-market fundamentalism”. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be better than central control, and commit fewer violations of individual rights along the way – a very low bar indeed.

One comment on “How Clever!

  1. This exchange turns out to be very similar to a more informed and informative exchange between Russell Kirk and Ludwig von Mises, and more broadly between the post-WWII “new conservatives” and the Manchester/Austrian school libertarians.

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