Ironic liberal / big government libertarian


in Canada, Economics, Law, Politics, Psychology

When I think about how to characterize my political views, it seems as though there are philosophical positions that I find appealing, but which need to be tempered in response to the strong counterarguments against them.

Ironic liberalism

I can see the sense in what Richard Rorty calls ‘ironic liberalism’. All that old-fashioned stuff about the rights of human beings deriving from god is woefully out of date. All the evidence we have suggests that there is no god (or, if there is, that it is a malicious or indifferent entity). Furthermore, the conversation in political philosophy has largely abandoned theological justifications. Now, we don’t have a terribly convincing story about where rights come from. That being said, I think it is clear that treating people as bearers of rights is a good way of ordering the world. As I understand it, ironic liberalism is about taking that observation and running with it. We have no fundamental reason for believing that people have rights, but the world seems to work better when we act as though they do – so let’s act that way, and let the feelings and consequences follow. Let’s take it seriously when someone asserts that they have a right to do something or have something provided for them (though, upon reflection, we may disagree with their claim). Similarly, we should take it seriously when someone asserts that their rights have been violated.

Rights are not an inherent property of the universe, but they are a good concept that allows us to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of different kinds of human interaction.

Big-government libertarianism

In my experience, libertarians say two kinds of things: rather convincing ones, and exceptionally stupid ones.

A good example of the first case is: “People should have the right to do what they wish with their bodies”. I don’t think it’s an absolute right, necessarily, and I realize that there are situations where people can be pressured into acting against their own best interests. That being said, the general principle that people have a greater interest in their bodies than anybody else – and that our bodies can realistically be thought about as our own property – seems convincing to me.

This general libertarian strand, which asserts that we should be free to make choices as we like so long as they do not harm other is both convincing and politically pertinent. It is connected to debates on topics like drug policy and legislating morality.

A good example of a stupid thing libertarians say is: “We don’t need to regulate health or the environment, because the market will handle it”. Without government regulation, I am sure the abuses committed by corporations and individuals agains their fellow citizens would be hugely more severe. Nuclear power plants would probably routinely dump radioactive waste directly into rivers; sugar pills would get sold as essential medications; the most awful stuff would end up in the meat people buy; and problems like climate change and ozone depletion would be totally ignored, at least until they became incredibly extreme.

Libertarians simply fail to understand how willing people are to act in a selfish way that is harmful to their fellow human beings. The allure of the quick buck at somebody else’s expense is considerable, as demonstrated by much of human history.

We need government to act as a fair dealer, and as an entity that thinks about the long term. Government needs to do things like recognize when dangerous excesses are building up in the economy – whether they take the form of frothy stockmarket conditions, bubbles in property values, or overly rapid inflation. We need a government that acts as an effective intermediary between individuals and large, powerful entities like corporations. We also need a government that keeps itself honest, by having mechanisms to prevent the capture of politicians or civil servants by the industries that they are meant to regulate.

We also need government to provide things that are good for society as a whole, but which individuals are usually unwilling to provide. This includes assistance to the sick, mentally ill, homeless, and so on. It includes education for everybody and fair access to the legal system. We need to have a government with the resources to perform these tasks well. That is partly because it is good for everybody when these kinds of public goods are provided. It is also because the provision of such goods is necessary to respect the rights of individuals (even if those rights are just a highly convenient fiction).

To summarize, we should take rights seriously even if we cannot say with an entirely straight face that they even exist. At the same time, we should be libertarians who truly recognize the essential and unique role played by government and who are happy to make the contributions in terms of time, taxes, and political participation that it takes to keep an effective government operating.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm

The federal government plans to cut the additional inspectors who were stationed at meat plants across the country after the Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak killed 23 Canadians in 2008.

A recent report by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says “resources will sunset for listeriosis and for increased frequency of food inspection in meat processing establishments” at the end of the current fiscal year.

The CFIA’s 2011-12 Estimates Report on Plans and Priorities forecasts a reduction of $21.5-million in the annual budget and 234 fewer staff. The agency increased the frequency of its inspections as a result of U.S. demands that Ottawa station inspectors in slaughter and meat processing facilities every 12-hour shift.

. January 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm

The Japanese government is investigating how radioactive concrete ended up in a new apartment complex in the Fukushima Prefecture, housing evacuees from a town near the crippled nuclear plant. The contamination was first discovered when dosimeter readings of children in the city of Nihonmatsu, roughly 40 miles from the reactors at Fuksuhima Dai-ichi, revealed a high school student had been exposed to 1.62 millisieverts in a span of three months, well above the annual 1 millisievert limit the government has established for safety reasons.

Matt January 17, 2012 at 2:02 am

All the evidence we have suggests that there is no god (or, if there is, that it is a malicious or indifferent entity).

I would phrase this differently. We have no evidence for the existence of god, malicious or benevolent, at all (lowercase ‘g’ intentional, nod to Hitchens). Similarly, we have no evidence that there is not a god in that it is something that cannot be proved. However, we can say that it is extremely unlikely. I don’t think god’s presence can be qualified with maliciousness or indifference.

I’ve been doing a lot of reaffirming of my atheism recently through internet sources. I remember coming to the conclusion that there is no god with a distinct clarity as a young kid (these days I wouldn’t say there is no god, but that there’s almost no chance of there being one, and regardless of that there is definitely no Abrahamic god). As an adult, I’ve felt it necessary to be able to articulate the logical steps to get to that conclusion that seemed so intuitive as a kid.

At the same time, we should be libertarians who truly recognize the essential and unique role played by government and who are happy to make the contributions in terms of time, taxes, and political participation that it takes to keep an effective government operating.

I am dubious of political labels such as conservative, liberal and libertarian simply because I hold opinions that, if judged on their own, would place me in any of those camps. Having said that, I think that willingness to contribute time, tax and participation to government almost automatically excludes you from libertarianism.

I recommend watching Penn Jillette (from Penn and Teller) on the Big Think youtube channel about libertarianism. I think he’s quite smart and quite articulate about the subject. I often disagree with what he says, but he’s sincere and I think expounds a very classic libertarian philosophy. Coincidentally, he also talks about atheism and I find myself agreeing with everything he says on that matter.

Anon January 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm

If the rights of human beings are convenient fictions that contribute to a better world, what about the rights of animals?

Is it appropriate for humans to use other animals however they like? Or do they deserve to be treated in a way that respects their interests and nature?

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm

We have no evidence for the existence of god, malicious or benevolent, at all (lowercase ‘g’ intentional, nod to Hitchens).

I would say we have some evidence for the absence of a benevolent deity that cares about human beings. Trials have been done on things like praying for the sick and when the trials are well designed, there seems to be no effect. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that when people ask for the assistance of a deity, they either get no help or are helped purely by coincidence.

We also have evidence of a level of cruelty in the natural world that seems entirely unjustifiable in a universe created by a benevolent god that cares about human beings (BGTCAHB). Consider people born with severe birth defects. What kind of benevolent god would allow that to happen so often? What higher purpose could it serve? There is also a worm that eats the eyes of animals, and has evolved to survive in that niche. That seems rather a cruel thing for a BGTCAHB to create and let people get exposed to.

Of course, there are countless examples of needless cruelty in the human world. Look at the distribution of malaria deaths worldwide or war deaths. You can argue that this suffering results from human beings exercising free will (not sending malaria medication to Africa, not reigning in our violent tendencies). Still, I think these maps represent phenomena that are incompatible with the theory of a BGTCAHB.

Tristan January 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Where has the idea of human rights ever been grounded in theology? Modern liberalism begins in the French Revolution, an explicitly anti-religious movement. I don’t see the need for “ironic” liberalism – the old ideas of liberation based on brotherhood and equality, and later “socialism”, were always based on the idea of the conditions for the flourishing of human freedom.

. January 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm


Rights: inherent or chartered?
August 18, 2010

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Where has the idea of human rights ever been grounded in theology?

How about:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


. January 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm


Questioning religious beliefs
February 23, 2011

Would god allow climate change?
August 3, 2009

Theism in Canada
June 1, 2008

Faith and diversity
November 26, 2007

The God Delusion and god is not Great
September 18, 2007

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm


“FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church’s elections – a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it – and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.”

Magna Carta of 1215

Arguably another example of rights being connected to notions of god, in a politically important document.

Tristan January 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Ok, so the English tradition appeals to God. So you don’t like God – so forget the English tradition – read the German and French traditions. No need to become “ironic”.

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I don’t see the need for “ironic” liberalism – the old ideas of liberation based on brotherhood and equality, and later “socialism”, were always based on the idea of the conditions for the flourishing of human freedom.

One thing to consider is that political theory isn’t something that is only considered in the abstract. It is also something that is applied in relation to the institutions and power structures that exist.

We have a liberal tradition, based on ideas like government through the consent of the people and the protection of individual rights.

Abandoning liberalism would have a real cost for our society, and it is therefore not something we should lightly abandon. At the same time, we are confronted with the somewhat postmodern problem of what the actual nature of rights is. One response to that – the ‘ironic’ response – is just to say that rights seem to work pretty well as a political concept, so let’s keep using them.

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm

So you don’t like God – so forget the English tradition – read the German and French traditions. No need to become “ironic”.

A) In your view, do these traditions support the idea that human beings are bearers of rights in a politically relevant sense?

B) If so, what non-theological arguments do they use to try to define what these rights are and where they come from?

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm

The animals question is a significant one.

What non-theological argument can you use to assert that human beings are bearers of rights, but chimps and orang-utans are not?

If chimps have rights, do squirrels? Lizards? Slugs? Ants? Dust mites? Bacteria?

If chimps do not have rights, why do humans?

Another problem of non-ironic rights is that they tend to collide. In cases where two acknowledged rights are in contradiction, a moral framework based on the assertion of absolute and essential rights ceases to be useful for deciding the question.

Tristan January 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm
Tristan January 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Milan, you are asking me to summarize the entire French/German liberal tradition in a nutshell. If you want, I can do this, but it will be more than just a blog comment. Also, I think you know much of it already.

. January 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm


Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:

1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

(d) freedom of association.

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Another thing worth considering is that before Hobbes and the idea that government exists to serve the interests of the people, the authority of the government was theologically justified.

The divine right of kings is another argument knocked down by atheism, and one that is harder to pick back up with an ironic interpretation.

“Why does the government have the right to rule?” is an important question, and one that is trickier to answer in the absence of a generally accepted divine mandate.

Tristan January 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm

The basic argument is simply this – rights emerge reciprocally with duties in any kind of society, so the ontology of “right” is no more difficult than the society’s ethical ontology in general. If you think the essence of a person is to be free, and you think it is proper for man to actualize his essence, then you think that he should be allotted with rights which are conducive for the flourishing of human freedom. Rights are never absolute, but rights always appear as absolute when you fight for them as principles. Decent societies institute rights in a way that is sensitive to this contradiction, but which strives not to let this contradiction lead to the demise of human freedom, and are also aware of the fact that rights can come to conflict with other rights, just as duties can come to conflict with other duties.

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm


Are you arguing that inherent rights exist? For example, that something about the nature of the universe supports my right to speak freely?

Summarizing the entire French / German liberal tradition does sound like a bit much, but what do you think are the relevant major ideas? What alternative to irony and theology do they use to justify their position that rights exist and are borne by human beings?

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Doesn’t this argument just raise the question of what ‘decent societies’ means?

I would point to The Moral Landscape as a pretty decent answer to that question.

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Maybe Harris would argue that rights are borne by all conscious entities, and their character is defined by what it takes to give them rich lives. The relativism argument is circumvented through the assertion that all human beings are psychologically similar to such an extent that there are clearly some moral arrangements that are objectively superior to others (though not all moral arrangements are necessarily meaningfully comparable with one another).

Milan January 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Aside: This comment got eaten by the spam filter temporarily. Comments that contain lots of links often do. I don’t always have time to search through my spam comments folder for false positives, because I get about 500 spam comments per day on this site.

Tristan January 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Aristotle’s politics wasn’t grounded in a simple theological justification. What do you mean “before Hobbes”? Seems like a kind of historical orientalism.

Tristan January 17, 2012 at 4:02 pm

What does it mean for something to exist? Does friendship exist? Does a photograph exist as something seen (i.e. a manifestation), or just as a collection of atoms?

Rights exist in a similar way to the manner in which duties exist. And if you don’t believe duties exist, well, you have bigger problems than “where do rights come from”.

Milan January 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Could it be that our sole duty is to respect the rights of all morally considerable beings?

Tristan January 18, 2012 at 9:48 pm

That statement is a tautology. It’s part of the concept of “morally considerable beings” that we have a duty to respect them. Otherwise, what could “morally considerable” mean? It is similar to the expression “It is immoral to eat too much food”.

Tristan January 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Anyway, the French/German tradition is grounded in the phenomena of human freedom, and the idea that it is most appropriate for man to be in a situation where his creative faculties and ability to pursue projects in his own interest through to an end, are utilized for the common benefit of himself and his community. If you think human life has some other end, feel free to disagree – but I think there is a strong psychological case to be made that the “good life” always consists of the short and long term pursuit projects that one is genuinely engaged in and towards which one makes an original contribution, or at least contributes in an original way, specific to his own individuality.

Milan January 19, 2012 at 7:38 am

I don’t think it’s a tautology.

It is conceivable that we could have moral duties that are unrelated to the rights of other beings.

If true, it also implies that a single conscious being alone in the universe would have no duties at all.

In any event, you argued before that rights and duties are distinct in some important way.

. February 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm

But, drawing on a sample size of several thousand, correcting for both education and socioeconomic status, the new study looks embarrassingly robust. Importantly, it shows that prejudice tends not to arise directly from low intelligence, but from the conservative ideologies to which people of low intelligence are drawn. Conservative ideology is the “critical pathway” from low intelligence to racism. Those with low cognitive abilities are attracted to “right-wing ideologies that promote coherence and order” and “emphasize the maintenance of the status quo”. Even for someone not yet renowned for liberal reticence, this feels hard to write.

This is not to suggest that all conservatives are stupid. There are some very clever people in government, advising politicians, running thinktanks, writing for newspapers, who have acquired power and influence by promoting rightwing ideologies.

But what we now see among their parties – however intelligent their guiding spirits may be – is the abandonment of any pretence of high-minded conservatism. On both sides of the Atlantic, conservative strategists have discovered that there is no pool so shallow that several million people won’t drown in it. Whether they are promoting the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the US, that manmade climate change is an eco-fascist-communist-anarchist conspiracy or that the deficit results from the greed of the poor, they now appeal to the basest, stupidest impulses, and find that it does them no harm in the polls.

. March 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm

SIR – In the debate about what religion meant for America’s founding fathers Thomas Jefferson’s rejection of Christian orthodoxy is a secondary issue. What matters is that Jefferson and his peers believed that a republic could not exist without virtue, and that virtue in turn depended on a belief that human beings are possessed of rights not granted by the state.

As your essay recalled, Jefferson once asked whether a republic could be secure without “a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God.” This was not a one-off throwaway line. You should have looked anew at the Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson, which makes the same point: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” This is our founding document, and Jefferson’s words are a statement of our founding principle.

James Tracy
Mendota Heights, Minnesota  

. March 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm
. July 4, 2012 at 9:16 pm

THIS spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?

There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.

What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.

From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell. But the Declaration’s author was not a greed-is-good guy: “Self-love,” Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.”

. April 10, 2017 at 6:39 pm

Above all, billionaires and the organisations they run demand freedom from something they call “red tape”. What they mean by red tape is public protection. An article in the Telegraph last week was headlined “Cut the EU red tape choking Britain after Brexit to set the country free from the shackles of Brussels”. Yes, we are choking, but not on red tape. We are choking because the government flouts European rules on air quality. The resulting air pollution frees thousands of souls from their bodies.

. July 6, 2017 at 1:13 pm

Hurricane Katrina turned into a catastrophe in New Orleans because of a combination of extremely heavy weather – possibly linked to climate change – and weak and neglected public infrastructure. The so-called solutions proposed by the group Pence headed at the time were the very things that would inevitably exacerbate climate change and weaken public infrastructure even further. He and his fellow “free-market” travellers were determined, it seems, to do the very things that are guaranteed to lead to more Katrinas in the future.

The oil industry wasn’t the only one to profit from Hurricane Katrina. Immediately after the storm, the whole gang of contractors who had descended on Baghdad when war broke out – Bechtel, Fluor, Halliburton, Blackwater, CH2M Hill and Parsons, infamous for its sloppy Iraq work – now arrived in New Orleans. They had a singular vision: to prove that the kinds of privatised services they had been providing in Iraq and Afghanistan also had an ongoing domestic market – and to collect no-bid contracts totalling $3.4bn.

The controversies were legion. Relevant experience often appeared to have nothing to do with how contracts were allocated. Take, for example, the company that Fema paid $5.2m to perform the crucial role of building a base camp for emergency workers in St Bernard Parish, a suburb of New Orleans. The camp construction fell behind schedule and was never completed. Under investigation, it emerged that the contractor, Lighthouse Disaster Relief, was in fact a religious group. “About the closest thing I have done to this is just organise a youth camp with my church,” confessed Lighthouse’s director, Pastor Gary Heldreth.

“Every level of the contracting food chain, in other words, is grotesquely overfed except the bottom rung,” Davis wrote, “where the actual work is carried out.” These supposed “contractors” were really – like the Trump Organization – hollow brands, sucking out profit and then slapping their name on cheap or non-existent services.

In order to offset the tens of billions going to private companies in contracts and tax breaks, in November 2005 the Republican-controlled Congress announced that it needed to cut $40bn from the federal budget. Among the programmes that were slashed: student loans, Medicaid and food stamps.

So, the poorest people in the US subsidised the contractor bonanza twice: first, when Katrina relief morphed into unregulated corporate handouts, providing neither decent jobs nor functional public services; and second, when the few programmes that assist the unemployed and working poor nationwide were gutted to pay those bloated bills.

New Orleans is the disaster capitalism blueprint – designed by the current vice-president and by the Heritage Foundation, the hard-right think tank to which Trump has outsourced much of his administration’s budgeting. Ultimately, the response to Katrina sparked an approval ratings freefall for George W Bush, a plunge that eventually lost the Republicans the presidency in 2008. Nine years later, with Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, it’s not hard to imagine this test case for privatised disaster response being adopted on a national scale.

. February 21, 2020 at 3:33 pm

That vision should be based on liberalism. The belief in freedom as the underpinning of civilisation, in the state as the servant of the individual rather than vice versa, and in the open exchange of goods, services and opinions, arose in Britain. It fits naturally with a national character which suspects authority and tends towards pragmatism rather than idealism. It underpinned the country’s progress in the 19th and 20th centuries and spread to become the world’s dominant political philosophy. But it is now under threat, not least in Britain.

Neither should the agenda be purely economic. Self-determination is central to liberalism, but over the past 150 years, power has slowly leached away from the English regions to Westminster. Scotland and Wales were given considerable autonomy in 1999, but England is highly centralised. Brexit was England’s revenge on Westminster (see article) for giving special privileges to Scotland and Wales but ignoring the regions; and the consequence may yet be the break-up of the union. But whatever the fate of the union, a liberal government needs to decentralise power, not just because decisions are best made as close to the action as possible, but also because people need to feel they have power over their own destiny.

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