Monday, November 06, 2006



Why I am not a Libertarian

Long Ago and Not True Anyway has an excellent essay on the subject of What’s the Matter with Libertarianism? He's attacking "libertarianism" in its generic sense, rather than any particular denomination, but the arguments apply to all in any case. For me, there are two problems. The first is the deification of property rights and markets, rather than a recognition that they are simply a useful tool and therefore can be changed depending on the desired social end. The second is their monomaniacal fixation on the state as the sole limitation on liberty. This ignores the valuable role played by government in protecting the liberty of the individual from the depredations of the powerful, and reduces their vision of freedom to a cruel joke where people are considered to have "freedom of religion" even when some forms of worship result in private punishment no different from state oppression, "security of the person" where employers can demand sexual favours as a prerequisite for employment, and "freedom of movement" even when they are forbidden to step out of their house and onto the privately-owned sidewalk. This isn't freedom for all, it's freedom for the pike.

Then there's the hypocrisy of many libertarians who proclaim the sanctity of absolutist property rights while opposing even token restitution by the government towards the descendents of this country's original indigenous owners. But as LAANTA astutely observes, rather than being consistent,

What they’re really advocating is ‘start from now’ libertarianism which, funnily enough, almost-always finds its strongest advocates amongst those who are doing pretty well at present thank you very much.

Rather than being consistent and principled defenders of freedom for all, libertarians are simply engaged in what John Kenneth Galbraith called "one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy": the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

46 comments:

This ignores the valuable role played by government in protecting the liberty of the individual from the depredations of the powerful

Nonono, that's unproductive and productive. You need to change your terms to be a real Libertarian!

Then there's the hypocrisy of many libertarians who proclaim the sanctity of absolutist property rights while opposing even token restitution by the government towards the descendents of this country's original indigenous owners.

What are they complaining about? I mean, isn't a few blankets and a gun a reasonable price for Wellington? After inflation & all... it's just entrepreneurism. You're just jealous.

Posted by Sam Vilain : 11/06/2006 05:46:00 PM

How about LEFT libertarianism, rather than the right wing kind? Left libertarianism, also known as libertarian socialism, aims as an ultimate goal to replace capitalism with worker self-management and cooperative production.

Posted by Larry Gambone : 11/06/2006 07:01:00 PM

What are they complaining about? I mean, isn't a few blankets and a gun a reasonable price for Wellington? After inflation & all...

Sam you really haven't read a single book of New Zeland history have you.

Larry,

In the footnotes to my blog post I made the point of excluding libertarian socialism from my critique (a totally different beast I agree).

Interestingly enough the term left-libertarianism is not not only reserved for anarchists but also for libertarians who are concerned with inequality too and/or who take the earth as jointly owned rather than unowned. Interesting, but I don't know much more. I think the wikipedia has section...

Posted by terence : 11/06/2006 07:33:00 PM

I agree, and here my a one sentence refutation of the "deificiation of property rights".

Property rights are socially constructed.

In other words, you need a society before you can have property rights, so it is nonsensical to suggest that property rights have any kind of logical primacy in society .

Posted by kiwi_donkey : 11/06/2006 07:52:00 PM

Notice how none of those characters in Ayn Rands novels ever have pets? That's what's wrong with Libertarianism.

Posted by danyl : 11/06/2006 09:33:00 PM

I think Larry makes a sound point. I don't think libertarianism should be equated with right-libertarianism. It is important to recognise left-libertarianism as the more widely accepted yet equally valid theory.

Left-libertarianism is a strong and valid modern discourse. When discussing 'libertarianism' it must be taken into consideration, or one should restrict one's topic to right or Nozickean libertarianism.

Let me just briefly summarise its difference/similarities with the traditional Nozickean variant:
Left-libertarianism is based on the same premiss as the right strain of the theory. Individuals have autonomy. This is best expressed through ownership rights over themselves. Individuals therefore can decide for themselves what to do with their own bodies and no one may interfere with them without consent. Unlike right-libertarianism however, left-libertarianism stipulates ownership rights cannot simply be extended to objects externally of the body just because one 'mixes one's labour with the object'. Instead, earthly resources are owned by all and should be distributed in a just manner (i.e. everyone should have an equal / fair share).

It's important to note that left-libertarianism is not simply liberalism in drag. Unlike liberal egalitarianism, left-libertarianism provides a much stronger defence of individual rights / liberties. Its desirability lies therein.

For those interested, Auckland University has the following books which are definitely worth a read:

1) Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate (Hardcover)
by Peter Vallentyne (Editor), Hillel Steiner (Editor)

2) The Origins of Left-Libertarianism: An Anthology of Historical Writings (Hardcover)
by Peter Vallentyne (Editor), Hillel Steiner (Editor)

3)Libertarianism without Inequality
By Michael Otsuka

Posted by Susan Deare : 11/06/2006 10:02:00 PM

Just a random thoughtsd.

The "original indigenous owners" have property rights (being owners would imply property rights?) are you against this form of "deification of property rights" ?.

If New Zealand voted to end this or any other form of property rights and ownership as having a "desired social end" would you support it?

Posted by Gerrit : 11/06/2006 10:41:00 PM

Right libertarians' selfish tendencies mean they are unlikely ever to amount to a significant force.

Posted by random thinker : 11/06/2006 11:43:00 PM

left libertarianism - hmmm you are free, unless you own property, then the mob can take it from you. Anarchy in other words. Except when you start saying this: "earthly resources are owned by all and should be distributed in a just manner"

Distributed by whom? It is no longer libertarian when the state dictates ownership of wealth, and of course those controlling the state have control of the wealth. This is about as libertarian as fascism.

The fundamental problem with all this is the notion that somehow resources are finite and fixed. Raw materials, land, electromagnetic spectrum - all have been found to have new and more innovative uses in the hands of people able to control them - and they enjoy a fraction of the benefits of their innovation.

Those who claim property rights are "deified" ignore the evidence that human beings are unable to survive without some property rights. If you cannot own the fruit of what you produce/earn, then you are subject to the whims of those able to strongarm it from you.

Without property rights you have either:
- Anarchy (survival of the strongest); or
- Authoritarianism (what you produce is subject to control by the state).

Posted by libertyscott : 11/07/2006 01:43:00 AM

I'm always deeply suspicious of rights. I think the mistake that thorough going libertarians (of the right ilk) make is to treat rights as though they are something permanent, floating out there around in the ether as an eternal verity.

The better view of rights is that they are a convenient fiction. A 'right' is simply somehting that we have more-or-less agreed to, as a useful way of running our societies. As such, they are revisiabe and rescindable, not absolute. This is why property 'rights' and other rights are not automatic trump cards.

Posted by DFR : 11/07/2006 06:10:00 AM

I have always been a bit confused abut left libertarianism along the lines of Libertyscott's argument. It just doesn't seem to make any sense, a bit like saying your going to have an authoritarian system with perfect freedom.

I can't see how it would avoid collapsing into authoritarianism or just collapsing in general, but it is easy enough to debate because you don’t have to put it into practice in the real world with real free loaders and power accumulators.

Conversely I can see how right-libertarianism might work – I guess it would be a social disaster, but it could function and possibly maintain itself.

Posted by Genius : 11/07/2006 08:30:00 AM

It is no longer libertarian when the state dictates ownership of wealth, and of course those controlling the state have control of the wealth.

But that's almost exactly what most right-libertarianism does. In a miniarchist state the state would dictate mcuh the ownership of wealth by enforcing property rights (no matter how unjustly aquired).

Whatever charges one might level against left-libertarians (and there are a few I can think of) at least they aren't guilty of equating freedom with preserving the wealth of those who already hold great big chunks of property.

Posted by terence : 11/07/2006 08:51:00 AM

I/S:

How about Virtue of Selfishness for starters? I think that justifies it fairly nicely :-)

Terence,

Why should the rights of the rich property-owners not be as deserving of protection as the poor?

Also, when you say "enforcing property rights (no matter how unjustly aquired)" - I'd be interested to see you elaborate on that.

The implication is that property could be legally but immorally / unjustly acquired, and protected by laws enacted by a libertarian government. Examples please?

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 11/07/2006 09:02:00 AM

I once tried to ask Trevor Louden a "curly question" about [I paraphrase] why we should rely on an absolute free market when game theory shows it's quite easy to get suboptimal outcomes.

Ah, but what you don't understand Lyndon, he said [I paraphrase], is a free market always works!

I gave up about then.

Posted by Lyndon : 11/07/2006 09:25:00 AM

Ah, the free market, based on the (thoroughly refuted) idea of individuals as self-interested rational autonomous units, interacting according to Malthusian principles that were outdated by Darwin in 1859...

Posted by Chris : 11/07/2006 10:00:00 AM

Lyndon,

Firstly, game theory is totall irrelevant to economics.

Secondly, even if it was ... how can you justify the abrogation of rights by citing improved economic outcomes?

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 11/07/2006 10:03:00 AM

Chris,

Your idea of what supporters of laissez-faire capitalism are really supporting is, well, a little outdated.

Go and visit the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and preferably read Liberalism while you're at it.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 11/07/2006 10:06:00 AM

Duncan

1) That's a debunking? I note it's about business, not economics. I need a long runup before I can have this argument, so I won't here, but none of lines relate to maximising the profits of individual businesses.

2) How could you justify your 'rights' if they, to choose an extreme example, caused society to collapse?

I don't actually believe in real, objective, plato-esque moral truths (though I do believe in acting as if they exist).

One of the rather gauche things I consider relevant to deciding what to use for a moral precept is the real world.

I have a deep impression that a medium-sized sort of government is stable, beneficial, and desired by the overwhelming majority of people.

I don't seek to justify the abrogation of rights. I simply don't accept that the rights in question are absolute.

Actually I also think allegiance to abstractions over people in government (lobbyists I can accept) is actively dangerous. To the best of my knowledge there has been no libertarian government, so the group might like to think of other examples.

Posted by Lyndon : 11/07/2006 10:37:00 AM

Lyndon,

Better?

Furthermore, when the hell did I say that rights were some kind of floating abstraction? From Politics - Rights:

Individual rights state explicitly the requirements for a person to benefit rather than suffer from living in a society. They codify man's protection from the initiation of force, as required by his rational nature. Being required by man's rational nature, rights are not arbitrary or negotiable. They are absolute requirements for life within a society. Rights are absolute.

Guy Fawkes was on Sunday - you can stop burning strawmen now ;-)

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 11/07/2006 10:48:00 AM

I'll also add that I may have been using the term "game theory" rather loosely.

I may also have meant something ideosyncratic by 'abstract'. Let's put aside the attempted scathe on my part and say I don't accept (among other things) your meta-ethic.

Must work.

Posted by Lyndon : 11/07/2006 11:13:00 AM

Libertyscott said:
The fundamental problem with all this is the notion that somehow resources are finite and fixed. Raw materials, land, electromagnetic spectrum - all have been found to have new and more innovative uses in the hands of people able to control them - and they enjoy a fraction of the benefits of their innovation.

I reply:
Are earthly resources such as oil, land or the world's fisheries infinite? Clearly not. Why should one individual or organisation have property rights to any of those things when they are finite planetary resources? Nozick argues mixing labour with the resource makes it more valuable and therefore confers a property right. The problem with that logic is that rests on shakey premisses. These ownership rights seem to pop up out of nowhere without justification - a random extension of self-ownership principles to justify the kind of society Nozick believed was just. Left-libertarians argue that one cannot simply confer property rights willy nilly. Instead, we should start right from basic premisses. In a state of anarchy all individuals would have potential entitlement to use wordly resources. Entering into political society doesn't magically change that. Instead, political society offers an opportunity to distribute the resources fairly.

genius:
Libertarianism is the political interpretation of a moral argument. Left-libertarianism rests on the very same moral argument as right-libertarianism. Individuals are entitled to self-ownership. Unlike the right theorists however left-libertarians argue ownership rights can't just be randomly extended to external objects simply because one 'mixes labour with the land (the Lockean proviso). The political interpretation is of course broad just like any other theory. But it runs broadly along the following lines:
- Strong emphasis of individual rights (i.e. legalising drugs, prostitution, gay marriage etc...)
- Egalitarian resource distribution.

Posted by Susan Deare : 11/07/2006 01:14:00 PM

Duncan, what kind of rock would I have to be living under to be ignorant of what laissez-faire capitalists want? They've been trumpeting their agenda from the highest mountains for at least 20 years now. If you think it's been misrepresented, argue with your cheerleaders, not me. From the site you linked to:

In this cause, the Mises Institute works to advance the Austrian School of economics and the Misesian tradition, and, in application, defends the market economy, private property, sound money, and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention as economically and socially destructive.

I don't see anything there to make me question my conceptions, and as a (dare I say it) professional evolutionary biologist I'm well prepared to argue the case that economics uses flawed models of both human behaviour and the dynamics of complex systems.

Posted by Chris : 11/07/2006 02:01:00 PM

Why should the rights of the rich property-owners not be as deserving of protection as the poor?

Duncan - why don't you explain to me why a wealthy person's right to cling to every peace of property they have ever aquired should take precidence over someone else's right to survival?

Also, when you say "enforcing property rights (no matter how unjustly aquired)" - I'd be interested to see you elaborate on that.

Please have a read of my essay - that's what I/S linked to in his original post. If you can't stomach the whole thing start from
Just Plain Unjust
. That explains in depth what I was getting at with my comment.

Posted by terence : 11/07/2006 02:04:00 PM

"why don't you explain to me why a wealthy person's right to cling to every peace of property they have ever aquired should take precidence over someone else's right to survival?"

Until there is a definitive statement how much is enough and how much is not enough you will never settle this argument. How much should the 'rich' give to the 'poor' and when will the whole thing balance?

Until then this argument goes on like treaty claims (never ending).

Posted by Gerrit : 11/07/2006 02:26:00 PM

Chris,

Which school of economics are you talking about? I happen to agree with you for the most part, with a few notable exceptions - in particular, Austrian economics.

Terence,

Put simply: two wrongs don't make a right.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 11/07/2006 02:32:00 PM

Terence,

To clarify my last post: I mean that wealth redistribution now is a wrong, which is only compounded upon past wrongs.

I don't mean that there's anything wrong with owning wealth here & now.

I'm in the process of writing a response to your original post, & will have it up on my blog shortly.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 11/07/2006 02:38:00 PM

yes Susan,
I know the moral theory (which is consistant, but that isn't enough) and I can see how it could be applied in certain situations (eg I am inclined towards the argument that the governmentshould not be in the business of legislating morality) but I dont see it as creating enough of a foundation to creat anything other than a disfunctional country that doesnt even acheive it's own aims.

For example it is easy to say "we will share all resources" but how would that work and who would ensure it happens?

Maybe technology will make that possible one day but by that stage communism will beat left libiterianism anyway.

Posted by Genius : 11/07/2006 03:35:00 PM

"two wrongs don't make a right"

who said anything about another wrong? only you, maybe?

wealth redistribution now is a wrong, which is only compounded upon past wrongs.

and they all lived happily ever after, obviously.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/07/2006 04:25:00 PM

Genius - You make are rather presumptious in your conclusion that such a society could not function. The theory with regards to fair resource distribution is quite broad and disputed.

Indeed, some left-libertarians argue social democracies already exhibit 'fair distribution'. For instance, modern taxes can be seen as a form of compensation for the use of certain resources. Though of course that is only one interpretation - it is a broad theory. What left-libertarianism does not automatically imply is a state which divides global wealth into equal pieces. If social democracy can function then a left-libertarian society can equally function. In a very narrow sense it may simply mean more social freedoms.

Posted by Susan Deare : 11/07/2006 04:31:00 PM

Hi Duncan,

Please give me a heads up when it is written.

In the mean time, a thought experiment:

While you’re busy typing away intent on fisking me, let’s just say I snuck up and stole your wallet. Two weeks later you caught up with me – very keen to get it back. But in the meantime a libertarian government had sprung to power determined on enforcing property rights as they are at this very moment, unconcerned with past injustices. So you can’t take your wallet back. Does this sound like justice to you?

I’m adamant that it’s now my property. You could take it off me, but like you say:

two wrongs don’t make a right

Posted by terence : 11/07/2006 04:58:00 PM

Terence: that's completely different - Duncan (presumably) isn't brown...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 11/07/2006 05:16:00 PM

Terence & I/S,

I have posted a reply on my blog: Why I Am A Libertarian.

Perhaps you should have a read of that before calling me a racist, I/S.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 11/07/2006 06:25:00 PM

> In a very narrow sense it may simply mean more social freedoms.

well if the answer is 'left libiterianism is what we have now (plus some social liberalism)" then er.. I guess that explains everything!

But a lot of people I talk to are apparently confused.

Posted by Genius : 11/07/2006 07:37:00 PM

Duncan,

I've read you're piece - I'm not quite sure how it disproves what I/S said, but thanks for taking the time to write a reply. I'll blog something back over the weekend.

Susan (if you're still on this thread),

Am I correct in thinking that left libertarians need not be one and the same as Anarchists (libertarian socialists)?

cheers

Terence

Posted by Terence : 11/07/2006 09:23:00 PM

Susan said "Why should one individual or organisation have property rights to any of those things when they are finite planetary resources?"

Property rights means control - if anyone can use anything any of the time then you have the tragedy of the commons, i.e. the oceans and the atmosphere. Pillage and pollute. Most private property tends not to be degraded, because the incentives are to enhance it.

The whole notion of "distributing resources fairly" just pops out of nowhere and is inherently subjective. The objectivist argument that property rights exist once you create or discover something (or trade) does not just pop out of nowhere, I'd argue it is a priori for human beings to survive and prosper. If some subjective entity (presumably the tribe/democracy/rule by numbers) decides it can take something I own received by voluntary exchange or by use of my own mind, then it can take it all and can give it to whoever it thinks it best - which will be subjective.

Left libertarianism is NOT libertarianism - "equitable resource distribution" is closer to the philosophy of the Khmer Rouge than any notion of freedom. The closest example anywhere of an expression of libertarianism is the US constitution - the two big mistakes since then have been in not applying it to all adults, and re-interpreting it to produce excuses for government intervention.

The fundamental notion of libertarianism is that all adults should interact on a voluntary basis. It does NOT endorse possession of property that you steal or defraud from anyone.

Posted by libertyscott : 11/07/2006 11:19:00 PM

Indeed the "tragedy of the commons" is one key problem. EITHER some individual owns the asset or a greater group owns it (possibly a state - and I think which is more appropriate depends on the situation)...

but the worst of all options is "no one has control over it" or "everyone can take it's resources as much as they want" because then there will always be someone who degrades it.

Posted by Genius : 11/08/2006 07:56:00 AM

I/S - Oh dear, why do libertarians always have do defend themselves against the same old tiresome and flaccid arguments? How about posting something worthy of refutation and that indicates some degree of intellectually honesty and scholarship? Try, for example, reading what Not PC has to say and then respond to his actual arguments.

Posted by Brian S : 11/08/2006 11:16:00 AM

Like most ideologies, Libertarianism has positive aspects.

The idea that people should be able to make their own decisions about how to live their lives is one that I agree with.

However, taken to extremes it has many bad aspects. As I/S points out, it ignores the power of corporates and individuals to opress. It also denies the concept of community rights and interactions.

Aside from that, the "propertarian" ideas of right-libertarians are electoral poison in most democratic societies. Most people benefit at some stage in their lives from a public health service, free education and a welfare system (actually all but agrophobic millionaires benefit from these - if not directly, then by living in a nicer society). So libertarian ideas get the thumbs down at the ballot box (e.g. ACT's 3% at the last election).

Unfortunately, the reaction of many is to lose the good bits of libertarianism and combine propertarinism absolutism with an authoritarian social control agenda (much of ACT, again). The aim here is to appeal to the reactionary social bigots for whom the desire to crush disliked minorities outweighs their economic self-interest.

Interstingly, the nearest societies I know to libertarianism are African kleptocracies. Here, provided you have a few dollars to bribe the authorities, you can do more or less what you like unfettered by laws.

Posted by Rich : 11/08/2006 03:19:00 PM

Chris said...
[I'm well prepared to argue the case that economics uses flawed models of both human behaviour and the dynamics of complex systems.]

Chris, I take it that you really understand what you're talking about:

#1) economics uses flawed models of human behaviour.

#2) dynamics of complex systems.

Do you know what complex systems is? Or are you picking up a word that you heard in a movie, without understanding what it is.

First, I am not an economist , however I am alarmed at how little is your knowledge about economic modeling to comment on something you don't a clue at all. I can mention this example to you and perhaps you should only jump and comment on your field of expertise, because you do insult economists who might be reading this blog.

The Black-Scholes-Model (BSM) first proposed by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes in 1973, formulated the 'market option pricing' flow using the theory of thermo-dynamics (or heat equations). They figured out that stock price do follow a 'brownian motion' path exactly as particles in fluid. That is stock price fluctuates exactly as how material diffuses in a fluid. Now, Merton and Scholes won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Economics for their effort in this discovery. It has been shown that their models fits the market data to certain accuracy. Ok , do you think that this is flawed? Or may be your understanding is flawed?


"Black-Scholes Model"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-Scholes

Posted by Falafulu Fisi : 11/08/2006 05:09:00 PM

Susan Deare said...
[Are earthly resources such as oil, land or the world's fisheries infinite? Clearly not. Why should one individual or organisation have property rights to any of those things when they are finite planetary resources?]

Of course they are not infinite, but that's what makes humans human. We live and adapt. If resources X is going to be depleted, then another resources Y will be produced or invented by a capitalist producer that will replace X. Remember rubber?

Posted by Falafulu Fisi : 11/08/2006 05:41:00 PM

Susan deare said...
[...political society offers an opportunity to distribute the resources fairly.]

Susan, I assume that you are a producer in the society who employs people? If you are, then could you please re-distribute your wealth to some of my cousins in Otara who are now working as cleaners for McDonald with pay rate of $10-50 an hour.

Would you be kind enough to offer them employment in your business where I assume that your pay rate must be around $40/hour or more for people who have no qualifications as my two cousins. They're school drop out though. Do you stand by your wealth re-distribution ideology or perhaps you take 'libbertyScotts' side and that is : "If you cannot own the fruit of what you produce/earn, then you are subject to the whims of those able to strongarm it from you". If you cannot offer my cousins better paid jobs from the miserable $10-50/hour from McDonald, then it means that you're accepting 'libbertyScotts' point. However, if you're able to offer better paid jobs to my uneducated cousins , then you really stand by for what you preach.

Posted by Falafulu Fisi : 11/08/2006 05:58:00 PM

Black-Scholes works in precise situations - e.g. a liquid market in options - where it is highly likely that if an arbitrage opportunity exists, then somebody (e.g. a hedge fund trader) will take it. It falls down (spectacularly in the case of the LTCM crash) when factors exist to prevent the arbitrage being exploited (such as a fast falling market with an excess of sellers).

Real-world people do not jump to take arbitrage opportunities. If you want an example, look at student loans. The academic economists of the Treasury and the National party (surely a tautology!) predicted that the outstanding loans would balloon as "economically rational actors" borrowed large amounts of interest free cash and placed it on deposit. This has notably not happened - due to real people not behaving in an economically rational fashion.

Posted by Rich : 11/08/2006 07:42:00 PM

The academic economists of the "Treasury and the National party (surely a tautology!) predicted that the outstanding loans would balloon as "economically rational actors" borrowed large amounts of interest free cash and placed it on deposit. This has notably not happened - due to real people not behaving in an economically rational fashion."

If they have failed to do it, it shows how damned financially illiterate so many students are :)

Posted by libertyscott : 11/09/2006 05:11:00 AM

you could say says they should be taught to be more economically rational, and in a peverse way the interest free student loan scheme becomes a good idea, because it is in a sense training to pay attention to investment.
more able to deal with the sort of money that is left on the grould when many NZders see it later in life.

Posted by Genius : 11/09/2006 06:45:00 AM

"Left-libertarian".....makes as much sense as "consensual rape"....

Go's for right-Libertarian too


Libertarians are neither Left nor Right....they are "above"! ;-)

Posted by James : 11/10/2006 02:41:00 PM

I've bloged a reply to Bayne and Creswell here:
http://tinyurl.com/yaoqxj

Posted by Terence : 11/12/2006 08:06:00 PM