Abusing Nomenclature, the Libertarian way

July 10, 2012

Over on Crooked Timber, Bertram, Robin and Gourevitch (BRG) have put up an interesting argument claiming that the commonly understood objective of libertarian ideology, freedom (defined as the absence of coercion) does not necessarily imply that a market economy is the best way of organising society. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, the cornerstone of a market economy, the freedom to enter into contracts of your choosing, is not necessarily freedom-maximising as it is entirely possible to sign away your freedoms when signing a contract. Whether contracts are freedom-maximising is therefore an empirical question not amenable to philosophical analysis, and cannot be used as an ideological plank.

Secondly, an economy in which the price of labour is its value in the marketplace permits coercion within the workplace; changing jobs is not a frictionless process and the cost of changing jobs can be sufficient in particular contexts (e.g. debt, supporting a family) to prevent a worker from selling their labour elsewhere. This permits out-contract coercion on the part of the employer; the example used by BRG is an employer demanding a female worker sleep with him or lose her job.

The above are sufficient to demonstrate that libertarian principles are not necessarily freedom-maximising, which would appear to defeat what is commonly held to be the point of the ideology. However, over on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Zwolinski thinks differently:

“I think the idea that libertarianism can be understood as fundamentally about freedom, simpliciter, is a mistake. It is an even graver mistake to suppose that libertarianism is committed to the maximization of freedom. […] What makes restrictions of freedom acceptable, and what differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable infringements of freedom, is a matter of some dispute among libertarians themselves. For neo-Lockean libertarians like Robert Nozick, freedom as a moral category is strictly subordinate to a prior theory of rights – my freedom to sell my kidney is worthy of political protection because it is compatible with my right of self-ownership and violates no one else’s rights; my freedom to swing my fist at your face is not. For consequentialist libertarians, freedom will only be worthy of political protection to the extent that this is compatible with the underlying teleological theory. But no libertarian, as far as I am aware, holds that mere freedom as such is the core value.

If you asked the philosopher in the street what the core value of libertarianism was, I’d be amazed if ‘freedom’ didn’t make up a majority of the responses. However, the above represents a wholesale retreat from the value, into the domains of rights and consequences. In order to spell out what this means, let’s consider the three questions that would be asked by three groups of people when considering how to organise society, the Neo-Lockean Libetarians, the Consequentialist Libertarians, and the liberals (small ‘l’, most definitely):

1) How do we organise society to best protect a given set of rights?

2) How do we organise society to best achieve a given set of goals?

3) How do we organise society to maximise freedom?

Now, the position being advanced by Zwolinksi is that libertarians are asking the first two questions, rather than the third, and that freedom (of various sorts) is frequently found to be the answer to them both. The problem is that in both cases freedom as a value is secondary – if there is a better way of organising society identified in response to those questions, then freedom will be eschewed.

As a result, the root of libertarianism is applied incorrectly: the philosophy is only incidentally related to liberty, and even then only on a empirical basis. If a way is found of protecting property rights that involves surrendering some civil liberties, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. If a way is found of maximising prosperity that involves shackling people unable to pay their debts to some kind of work engine, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. By allowing the name ‘libertarianism’ to be associated with a creed that supports liberty only as a matter of likelihood, our political discourse is tarnished. I would therefore call on anyone discussing the subject to eschew the term in favour of something more suited. I would opt for Possessionism.


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