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.
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 All that old-fashioned stuff about the rights of human beings deriving from god is woefully out of date.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.
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.