Mega-libertarianism

2011-05-05

in Geek stuff, Law, Politics

For me, John Stewart Mill’s Harm Principle is a key element of libertarian philosophy. It holds that a person should be free to do as they like, until they start causing harm to others. If you want to have an avante garde theatre on your land, that is your right and I cannot object unless the noise is keeping me aware at 3:00am or you start dumping toxic paint into the river from which I drink.

At an election party the other night, however, I spoke with someone who has a more expansive libertarian philosophy than I had previously encountered – one that isn’t especially bothered by harm. They thought the important thing was for individuals to be as unrestricted as possible by government, even if their behaviour is causing harm to others. If you really value liberty for its own sake, perhaps it makes sense to adopt a Wild West ethical philosophy, in which individuals are behaving rightly whenever they try to get what they want. That said, I think this philosophy proves lacking very quickly as soon as some questions are asked.

Basically, the underlying ethic is that the strong should feel free to impose themselves on the weak. When you discard the Harm Principle, you leave people to fend for themselves. If my neighbour has guns and goons and I do not, I have no way to personally prevent him from dumping plutonium into my river, stealing my property, or having me beaten up for expressing my political views. In order to live in a decent society, I think we need to constrain the rights of the powerful. Everyone must be subject to the rule of law, and the law must protect important rights such as the freedom of speech.

A mega-libertarian society which discards the Harm Principle seems to me much like the Hobbesian state of nature. It wouldn’t necessary be quite as chaotic and violent as Hobbes believed, but it would certainly be terribly unjust. Without the Harm Principle, there is no moral basis to condemn rape, robbery, or murder. Under mega-libertarianism, a serial killer is just expressing themselves in their preferred manner, and the government really ought to get off their back.

I can appreciate the libertarian impulse to be skeptical about government and other systems of societal organization. At the same time, we must recognize that the whims of the over-mighty are also a major constraint upon liberty. It is much better to live in a democratic society with the rule of law than to live in a feudal society where military strength determines who is in charge and what the rules will be. In order for a society to be truly free, those who live within it need to adopt reasonable limits on their own behaviour.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan May 5, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Once you accept that the Harm Principle is an important part of a valid libertarian philosophy, libertarianism becomes a lot less liberating.

Neal May 5, 2011 at 3:18 pm

But you forget the principal libertarian principle: “fuck you, got mine”. Also, being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

oleh May 6, 2011 at 2:27 am

I believe it would be scary to live in a mega-libertarian society where the imposition of harm was unrestrained and allowed.

Anon May 6, 2011 at 10:03 am

One other factor to consider is the problems that arise when people rely on government to solve their problems.

Governments often do a bad job, and it strips people of their sense of personal responsibility.

Tristan May 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm

At a talk at TAPSS this week, Henry Rosemont advanced the position that the only way to argue that libertarianism is not a basically decent moral philosophy, i.e. one which could be held by a reasonable person, is to adopt a form of Confucianism. While he was supportive of mine and others’ attempts to find resources in the western tradition to use to show that libertarianism fundamentally misgrasps the essence of freedom and being a person, his Confucian position, which states that you are your relations and roles, rather than your abstractability from any particular relation or role, is appealing.

Tristan May 6, 2011 at 1:27 pm

I will post Rosemont’s talk here when it goes online. But I found another video online which people might find interesting. Start at 39:30

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB_S3PsBx5M

Byron Smith May 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm

It is much better to live in a democratic society with the rule of law than to live in a feudal society where military strength determines who is in charge and what the rules will be.
While I agree that a libertarianism lacking a “no harm” principle is indeed scary, thought I’d just quickly point out that historically, feudalism was no such situation. There were complex and highly developed political arrangements involving all kinds of social obligations and limitations on political power. We may well critique the arrangement of those power relations, but it was no state of nature.

Milan May 11, 2011 at 6:07 pm

You could even defend feudalism from a moral perspective, by arguing that the alternative social, political, and military arrangements possible at the time would have been even worse.

One thing Hobbes was largely right about was the importance of avoiding civil war.

anon May 12, 2011 at 6:06 am

“by arguing that the alternative social, political, and military arrangements possible at the time would have been even worse.”

You could. Except it would be impossible to verify the truth of any of your claims, and the persuasiveness of such an argument would be based entirely on our “fear” motive.

Incidentally, if you want to argue for a “next best” political system due to fear of an “even worse” one, why not just go straight to defending fascism? I don’t think we are far from this in Canada anyway, perhaps you could get a job doing it?

anon May 12, 2011 at 6:10 am

“One thing Hobbes was largely right about was the importance of avoiding civil war.”

Many great political advances have been attained through civil war. The idea that we should avoid civil war at all costs is the idea that the people should never demand anything outside the realm of imperial consent. It is also the idea that human life, even the life of slaves, is irreconcilably more valuable than freedom – and that people should not be allowed to choose abstract values over life or personal security.

Milan May 12, 2011 at 8:08 am

I didn’t say civil war is absolutely always the worst option – but it is usually a pretty terrible one. The worst places in the world to live in today are either states suffering from civil wars or totalitarian (often communist) dictatorships.

Tristan May 12, 2011 at 8:41 am

The notion of a “communist dictatorship” is an oxymoron; the first criterion of communism is worker control over production, and in a dictatorship production is controlled not by workers but by a dictator.

Milan May 12, 2011 at 9:05 am

Actual communist countries differ substantially from the academic/intellectual ideal of the system.

Communism seems completely discredited as a way to try to establish a just society.

anon May 13, 2011 at 12:17 am

If you don’t define what “communism” means, then you can’t meaningfully say it has been “discredited” as a way to establish a just society. It seems you are using it in the sense it is used as a propaganda term by dictators who are attempting to legitimize their theft of everything by saying they are making it “common property”, or something like that. The fact that many dictators use the word “communism” to attempt to lend legitimacy to their brutal projects is no more a critique of communism than the fact many dictators use the word “democracy” in the name of their countries is a critique of democracy, and for the same reasons.

It is easy to rattle off liberal cliches, like “communism seems discredited”. What is a good deal harder is to speak clearly and use concepts carefully, so that you can actually interact with people who do not already agree with you.

Milan May 13, 2011 at 12:33 am

So have there ever been any ‘real’ communist countries as you define the term? Are there any you would have been happy to live in?

oleh May 13, 2011 at 3:18 am

I will assume that the “anon” who wrote on May 12 that Canada is not far from a fascist political system is the same who wrote on May 13 that communism is discredited is a literal cliche. S/he goes on to encourage use of concepts carefully.

For anon to suggest that Canada has a fascist political system seems to be the type of cliched rhetoric that anon condemns.

Milan May 13, 2011 at 11:23 am

It is possible that each any every anonymous comment is written by a completely different person. Do not expect consistency.

anon May 18, 2011 at 10:48 am

I don’t think it’s cliche to say Canada is not far from fascism at present. I think it’s a serious description of changes in immigration policy we’ve already seen under the conservatives, and a reasonable outlook about what future changes we might see. For instance, acceptance of Roma refugees has dropped from approximately 100% acceptance to approximately 0% acceptance during the Harper administration. Moreover, the number of precarious status workers, who’s condition is not so different from chattel slavery, has exploded and was even discussed in the leaders debate. Why can’t expect more of the same, now that Harper has a majority? Why won’t he be free to emphasize xenophobic migration policies, and further use our two-channel migration to continue to depress the price of labour by creating more and more precarious-status workers?

At what point does Canada become an apartheid country? How many people in Canada need to be of precarious status before they are recognized by the liberal mainstream as an oppressed group? How many more times will liberals employ nationalist rhetoric, explicitly or not appealing to their birthright to Canadian privilege in order to dismiss the idea that these policies are racist or exploitative?

With the last election, we’ve seen the middle drop out of Canadian politics. How many examples do you want of this happening in the past, and the states in question moving either towards fascist dictatorships or communist dictatorships (both kinds of which this anon personally abhors).

anon May 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Incidentally, I don’t know if this is happening here – but it’s cliche and a gross simplification to only associate fascism with Nazi Germany. There have been many governments in many parts of the world this century which have been “fascist”. Also, most of them have been significantly less evil than the 3rd Reich. It is generally characterized by garnering support through xenophobia, implementing business friendly policies by imposing a discourse of alliance between all people within an industry, and scapegoating/dehumanizing/de-valuing out-groups based on an arbitrary distinction, like where you were born. Lots of countries, most even, already do these three things to some extent – fascism is what we call countries that do them to an extreme extent.

anon May 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm

What do you think Woody is singing about?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwcKwGS7OSQ

oleh May 19, 2011 at 2:09 am

anon, Canada has the highest per capita acceptance of immigration rate of any country; that would seem the opposite of xenophobia.

. August 8, 2017 at 8:52 pm

Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. I have some libertarian tendencies, but at full-strength purity it’s an ideology most boys grow out of. On the American right since the ’80s, however, they have not. Republicans are very selective, cherry-picking libertarians: Let business do whatever it wants and don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs or marriage with whomever they wish; and don’t mention Ayn Rand’s atheism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction. “I grew up reading Ayn Rand,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said, “and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. “I think a lot of people,” Ryan said in 2009, “would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.” I’m assuming he meant Atlas Shrugged, the novel that Trump’s secretary of state (and former CEO of ExxonMobil) has said is his favorite book. It’s the story of a heroic cabal of men’s-men industrialists who cause the U.S. government to collapse so they can take over, start again, and make everything right.

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