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Social Libertarianism
Apr 23, 2007, 10:10p - Culture

Pure libertarianism, while disproportionately popular among several of my friends and among the privileged, is neither a feasible nor a compassionate philosophy for social living. As much as I value my independence and want people to stop butting into each other's business, libertarianism will not work as a solution to the overreach of government and our culture of victimization. I, as much as anyone, would like to see our rates of violence, our rates of litigation, and our rates of alienation and depression go down. 30,000 people die each year of suicide, of the 130,000 who attempt and have to be hospitalized, in addition to the 16,000 who are murdered each year. Unfortunately, libertarianism cannot solve these problems, either for the society or the individual. Here's why.

Pure Libertarians, at their core, believe in the philosophy of "live and let live" taken to its extreme. They support the notion of "every man for himself". They advocate a government whose sole concern is that of national security. By consequence, they believe in minimal taxes and minimal legislation of all kinds. Many libertarians are pro-choice, less because they believe in a woman's right to choose, and more because they believe that the government sure as hell shouldn't tell a woman whether to give birth or not. At this very moment, there is a national call-out to all Libertarians to meet in New Hampshire so that they can take over the government and let freedom reign. This vision of a libertarian utopia has not seen these fine shores since Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" (a remarkable book nonetheless).

Libertarians believe that individuals should take responsibility for their own actions. They subscribe whole-heartedly to the adage, "Democracy, at its worst, is mob rule of the few by the many." They believe today's government has too much power over how individuals live their lives, from setting speed limits to regulating what's broadcast on TV. For a Libertarian, the ideal law would be one that prohibitted all other laws (excluding those that enhance national security without diminishing the freedom of the individual).

I hope this description conjures up a reasonable image of pure libertarianism. This description may not be the most accurate, but I believe it captures the core beliefs of the unabashedly libertarian.

Now, there are 2 questions for us to ask. First, why is the libertarian strategy unfeasible? Second, and more importantly, why is this philosophy uncompassionate?

As societies have developed and grown in size, individuals are forced to interact with each other more. In a rural environment where everyone lives 10 miles from everyone else, you can pretty much do what you want without directly harming those around you. You can play your music real loud, have thumpin' sex at 4 am, and get drunk and yell racial epithets to your heart's delight (all things that our upstairs neighbor has done). However, as population increases and density increases, individuals are forced to come into repeated contact with the strange people around them, and their loud idiosyncracies begin to affect other people. If your neighbor across the street has a garage band that sucks, and they play until 2 am every morning, that's going to seriously affect your quality of life. You start by asking them to keep it down, but like the free souls they are, they couldn't give a shit. In a powerless negotiation, the most acceptable use of force is that which leverages those who would judge you. So instead of pulling out the rifle and telling them you mean business, you bring up the issue with your other neighbors and then decide to walk over as a group. Surrounded by tens of neighbors, the 4 future rock-stars will give in, and peace will be restored. You'll be the block hero, and you could even run for mayor.

Social control is born. Once we have a social-control, er, conformity-enforcing, er, law-making body, it's not surprising that they do their jobs, namely, make more laws. When a fire kills a bunch of people in a theater, it (ostensibly) makes sense to create a law that mandates more exits. When a car speeds down the highway at 85 mph, smashing into 3 cars and killing 5 people, it (ostensibly) makes sense to create a speed limit, though the actual data is mixed. Some studies (Lave, USDOT, and collection, see below) have found that increasing the national speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph actually decreased the accident fatality rate by 3-5%. Another study (Highway Administration) found a subtler relationship where cars travelling at speeds that varied substantially from the average speed (both higher and lower) experience higher accident rates.

And so our culture of caution coagulates with the desire to "do something", leading to the institution of yet another social control. Sometimes they're good laws, sometimes they're bad, but overall we end up doing many things that are necessary for high-density, social living. So from this perspective, a purist Libertarian just can't win. It may be fine in theory, but it's impossible to practice.

More importantly, though, is that the libertarian perspective lacks compassion. As privileged individuals who have supportive families, went to good schools, and had well-paying jobs, it's very easy for many of us to think, "We did it on our own, so anyone who wants to can too." It's very easy for us to ignore everything that we were lucky enough to have: being born in a wealthy country, born to a family with a reasonable level of financial stability. Of course, that's not all of us, but many of us. Some of us may have even had an under-privileged childhood, worked our asses off, and genuinely earned the lot that we now have in life.

In either case, the question is this: if we, as a society, can afford to provide food, shelter, education, and health care to those who can't, why shouldn't we? Should we not offer to help those in need, especially if it costs relatively little? One counter-argument is that such "hand-outs" breed dependency and actually hurt society overall. I think this is an interesting theory, but have yet to find much more than anecdotal evidence to support it (comment if you have anything). So for now, I prefer to advocate a compassionate perspective rather than a heartless one. I believe that the vast majority of people need to work, because not working and not talking to people (which work provides a context for) is liable to drive them crazy.

I am a strident individualist at heart. I believe that people should, by and large, take responsiblity for their actions and their situations. However, it is the true nature of this world that many individuals are not responsible for their situations and actions, because the ancestors of many of the most priviliged took wealth from the under-privileged by force. "Might is right," as they say, where here I am using "right" to mean "privilege", not moral authority. Libertarianism, while interesting as an idea, is not fit for the sustainable, compassionate society that I hope for. Perhaps a more social libertarianism is what's appropriate.

Sources referenced in writing this essay:
- Suicide stats from the CDC
- Homicide stats from the FBI
- Did the 65 mph speed limit save lives? [PDF] by Charles Lave and Patrick Elias
- Effects of Raising and Lowering Speed Limits by the US Dept of Transportation
- Do Higher Speed Limits Cause Accidents?, a collection of study results from the US
- Synthesis of Safety Research Related to Speed and Speed Limits by the Federal Highway Administration

Read comments (10) - Comment

omar - May 4, 2007, 7:23a
a long time ago i read stuff by john rawls, the famous political philosopher who wrote "A Theory of Justice" which sparked nozick to write "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" which put forth libertarianism as an alternative to rawls' liberalism. fascinating stuff -- especially nozick's examples, which really gets one thinking that the minimal state might not be so bad. you may want to read a bit of rawls and nozick to get the gist of their argument.

i was going to say something else but i suspended my computer and have now awoken and can't remember what...

nikhil - May 7, 2007, 11:41p
thanks omar - i'll look up the two write-ups you recommended and let you know what i think after reading them.

dan - Jan 19, 2008, 7:28a
As a man who runs a business I came to the conclusion many years ago and from pratical experiance that Capitalism is not Free Enterprise. Capitalism abhors competitions, and it's not the State that's the probem, it's simply that Capital and power centralize. I consider myself a Left Libertarain. Libertarians from the econimic side are disatrously naive.

Russ - Nov 17, 2008, 7:45p
Most non-libertarians like yourself find it necessary to define libertarian thinking(usually incorrectly or incompletely) before tearing it down. And it's strange, but most of the attempts to describe libertarian thinking (at least the attempts that originate from non-libertarians) attempt to define it in a sort of hyper-pure form, the impractical and unbending idealogy that can only make sense to radical ego-centrists. Imagine if I attempted a dissertation on "pure democracy" or "pure communism" or "pure capitalism"? Our world has never seen any one of these pure ideals put into practice on the ground. And so it is with libertarianism. So why not consider a society that puts personal liberty and responsibility first and social service issues second (instead of abandoning them)? I therefore respectfully suggest that you stop discounting libertarianism as an impractical idealogy and start considering the profound positive influence it could have on a free society were it ever implemented like other idealogies - that is, the leading political and social influence rather than a dominating and all-consuming force.

nikhil - Nov 17, 2008, 8:46p

If you come back to this, I'd be curious about how you, as a libertarian, would change policies that are in place today? I appreciate the sentiment of your comment, but find it very vague. Any specific policy changes would help me better understand your point.

Rob - Jan 12, 2009, 3:26p
This raises some good points. I got into libertarianism for a while, but the dogmatic reliance on the market to solve all our problems was a big turn-off. Socially, I believe in as much freedom as possible. I don't believe in legislating morality or good taste. I'd like the government to be a support structure that helps people, not something that dictates how they should live. I also think there's room for free enterprise - I don't condone true socialism - but I don't think laissez-faire capitalism is a good thing either. The government should provide protection of resources and the environment. It should protect certain workplace rights, such as safety and a minimum wage (I'm less sold on living wage). I think there's room for a national health care plan too, which wouldn't go over too well with most libertarians.

Mr Speaker - Feb 5, 2009, 7:21a
Great article.

Sandro Shanidze - Mar 25, 2009, 11:41a
100% agree with you, I have the same problem of my friends believing ,,everyone by themselves" would work.

Jiggers - Jul 15, 2009, 3:57p
As a social libertarian I found the article interesting. I tend to agree with Russ that it is flawed to look at "pure" libertarianism. By advocating libertarianism as an ideology you encourage change of the current big brother attitudes ever increasing held by governments worldwide. The example of the individual who could even "run for mayor" is a good example of micro-politics within a community in action. This, for me is an example of how a person can be empowered by libertarianism to take initiative, the result being one the entire community is happy with, hopefully even the band members after some reflection upon how their actions affect others (in an ideal situation).

The essay states that " Many libertarians are pro-choice, less because they believe in a woman's right to choose, and more because they believe that the government sure as hell shouldn't tell a woman whether to give birth or not", I ask if there are any stats. to back up this statement because although I would agree that there may be a few I would disagree with saying "most".

I have found that the more well considered libertarian-socialism (contemporary anarchism as opposed to classical anarchism or pure liberalism) does not just concentrate on the liberties or rights of each individual, it empowers each individual and encourages them to become an active part of their community - this focus respects the rights of each individual while helping them to feel a sense of responsibility towards the well being of the community as a whole.

To those who say they believe in pure liberalism I would say that yes encouraging each individual to be independent are important but how would it be a good thing for all?

Scott - Jul 15, 2010, 2:07p
Russ, to answer the question, the ideals stated are very similar, in theme, to the ideals set forth in the "Libertarian Manifesto" which is called Anarchy, State and Utopia, by Robert Nozick. In short, Nozick argues that as minimal a state as possible should be developed. He further states that he believes democracy to be incompatible with libertarianism...

The first, and most important, answer to your question about putting personal liberty ahead of social justice would arise from a simple concept, which came first? Human existence is but a blip in the span of Earth's history. Nature reigns supreme. Nature is what is shared by all mankind. Where Nozick misses the boat in his description of why a man is entitled to the entire amount of the fruits of his labor is in his first description of the acquisition of property.

He states, unequivocally, that if someone takes a liberty from you, that man then owes you compensation. What he misses is that the very original acquisition of land violated the rights of another man; it had to. By taking a tree and cutting it down, my rights to the aesthetic beauty of that tree and the oxygen producing capacity of that tree have been violated. All of nature exists for the benefit of all mankind. As soon as one man "acquires" that property, he is really taking my liberty away.

It is not relevant whether he makes a product that will enhance existence. He has taken something FROM me and the rest of mankind. As such, he would owe us compensation. That compensation would be owed to society as ongoing payments for it's continued use... redistribution.

I believe that a market structured society better equips a society to ensure the welfare of all born into that society. A man may be granted property rights, but it is with the explicit implied instruction that ownership of the land and cultivation requires a societal debt on the part of the owner. That debt funds the many programs a society needs to function.

Further, Nozick misses another very important concept... the definition of a DOMESTIC enemy. A domestic enemy is not simply the man who commits the crime. Do you wait until your car is out of oil and the engine blows up to take it to a mechanic? I sure hope not!

Society has the same problem, poverty and illiteracy are the root cause of crime. They are as much an enemy of the state as a drug dealer. Poverty and illiteracy ARE within the realm of the states protection against domestic enemies.

I have read "A Theory of Justice" am 2/3 through "Anarchy State & Union" with "Spheres of Justice" awaiting...

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