Against Fake Libertarian Clarity

This exchange reminds me that many (maybe most) self-styled libertarians think that libertarianism is, by definition, a philosophy that conceives of liberty as a lack of coercion, and, additionally, that coercion is something easy to understand. For these libertarians, just as one might decide to take up an interest in the plight of foreign war orphans, one might decide to be troubled by the fact that some people's lives are stunted or ruined by arbitrary yet systemic social exclusion, or by having the development of their interests and talents constantly discouraged and their aspirations and confidence constantly undermined. But, they say, these elective worries cannot flow from an interest in liberty, because liberty is about not being threatened with involuntary confinement in a small room, while these things are about being threatened with involuntary confinement in a small life.
These libertarians are usually guilty of defining “coercion” ideologically, and then acting as though the word has always meant what they use it to mean. But it is abuse of language to deny that many emotional or social threats are coercive–that they can strip a person of her liberty by raising the price of its free exercise beyond what she should be made to pay. You can choose to welcome the knifepoint. But we agree that this is too much to ask, so we agree that going along at knifepoint doesn't count as an exercise of freedom–as something for which you bear responsibility. There are many other things that are too much to ask.
These libertarians are also notoriously guilty of pretending that their favorite kinds of coercion aren't. Threatening force to deny another person use of one's land, or one's house, is coercion. A system of private property is a system of coercion. It may be justified coercion. It is justified coercion. But then the question is: What justifies it? The coercive protection of property is justified because people do better with it than without it. If people do better in a system that defines rights to property a bit less strictly, and coercively guarantees an economic minimum, then that is justified coercion. It's not really a philosophical question whether it is or not. Justified coercion, like the coercion in the protection of property, isn't wrongfully liberty-limiting, but it does limit liberty. 
If libertarianism is the view that coercion is never social or emotional, and that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian. If libertarianism is the view that human well-being is best promoted by ensuring “that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man,” then I am a libertarian. If this is a libertarian view, then the goal to minimize or abolish wrongfully liberty-limiting social norms is a libertarian goal.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

42 thoughts

  1. Your point works against people who think it is inherently unfair that people’s advantages are caused by differences that they had no moral responsibility for.
    But it doesn’t work against people who think there’s nothing wrong with that. Previous generations of Morleys worked and gave me advantages I don’t claim moral responsibility. Previous generations of Canadians worked at building a relatively functioning society and gave me advantages I also don’t get moral responsibility for. But the Canadians, like the Morleys, did so in part to make a better world for their progeny. If previous generations of Argentinians made worse choices, why is that any different than being the grateful recipient of human capital your family acquired.
    The only corrective injustice occurs if, and to the extent, previous generations of Canadians looted some other group, and I am still benefiting from that looting while someone else is suffering the continuing detriment. That can plausibly be said about the Cree, but not of the Mexicans (Your mileage may vary if you have title to land in the Southwest United States.)
    However, the fact that I am relatively advantaged — either as a Canadian or a Morley — does mean I have more power to do good than I am in fact exercising. Human nature being what it is, I could probably be required to do more and the overall benefits to others would exceed the cost to myself. At some point, the incentive effects would mean that overall utility would be reduced, but I doubt we are at that point, especially for redistribution across national boundaries.

  2. Let’s lighten this up with an economst joke.
    A physist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physist says, “Lets smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Lets build a fire and heat the can first.” The economist says, “Lets assume that we have a can-opener…”
    If the laughter has died down, let me quote a long excerpt from “Liberalism” by Mises, which Mr Wilkinson cites approvingly.
    “[Immigration] is of the most momentous significance for the future of the world. Indeed, the fate of civilization depends on its satisfactory resolution. On the one side stand scores, indeed, hundreds of millions of Europeans and Asiatics who are compelled to work under less favorable conditions of production than they could find in the territories from which they are barred. They demand that the gates of the forbidden paradise be opened to them so that they may increase the productivity of their labor and thereby receive for themselves a higher standard of living. On the other side stand those already fortunate enough to call their own the land with the more favorable conditions of production. They desire?as far as they are workers, and not owners of the means of production?not to give up the higher wages that this position guarantees them. The entire nation, however, is unanimous in fearing inundation by foreigners. The present inhabitants of these favored lands fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country and that they would then have to suffer all the horrors of national persecution to which, for instance, the Germans are today exposed in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland.”
    “It cannot be denied that these fears are justified. Because of the enormous power that today stands at the command of the state, a national minority must expect the worst from a majority of a different nationality. As long as the state is granted the vast powers which it has today and which public opinion considers to be its right, the thought of having to live in a state whose government is in the hands of members of a foreign nationality is positively terrifying. It is frightful to live in a state in which at every turn one is exposed to persecution?masquerading under the guise of justice?by a ruling majority. It is dreadful to be handicapped even as a child in school on account of one’s nationality and to be in the wrong before every judicial and administrative authority because one belongs to a national minority.”
    “It is clear that no solution of the problem of immigration is possible if one adheres to the ideal of the interventionist state, which meddles in every field of human activity, or to that of the socialist state. Only the adoption of the liberal program could make the problem of immigration, which today seems insoluble, completely disappear. In an Australia governed according to liberal principles, what difficulties could arise from the fact that in some parts of the continent Japanese and in other parts Englishmen were in the majority?”
    What is Mises actually saying here? “Assume the existence of a world populated by people who have no interest in dominating one another and are devoted to the idea that the state should be a non-interventionist one, and that people should trade peacefully with one another for their mutal benefit”.
    He is utterly oblivious to the fact that the people living under those “less favorable conditions of production” are very frequently doing so by their own choice. In fact they have begged their governments to pass the laws requiring those “less favorable conditions of production”.
    The mass immigration of Japanese people to Australia would result in the same “less favorable conditions of production” there, because those conditions are the result of cultural beliefs held by Japanese people.
    We are currently seeing outward migration of American citizens from the once Golden State of California. The policy positions favored by those people have ruined a once wonderful economy. Now those people, bearing with them those same beliefs, are moving to other places in America, where they will duplicate California all over again.
    The fundamental flaw of Mises-style liberalism is that it ignores people as they actually are in favor of people as it wishes they were. As the communists can attest, the price for doing this is always very high.

    1. So you think that people in Europe and Asia in 1927, when “Liberalism” was first published, can be said to have chosen their governments? And that immigrants do not adapt to the countries they migrate to?

      1. The people in all countries can be said to have chosen their government, yes.
        Of course immigrants don’t “adapt” to their countries. If this were true we would not have such a thing as demography, and we’d talk about blacks and Jews as if they were interchangable terms.
        Why do YOU think that China is China, Sweden is Sweden, France is France, and Egypt is Egypt? Do you think it has anything to do with their being peopled by Chinese, Swedes, French, and Egyptians respectively? If not, then to what do you attribute the differences?

      2. Has each person chosen his government by the time he is born, or does he get a few days’ to make the decision?
        In a world where very few choices of government are available, has a person in a small minority (opinion-wise) chosen the government where he lives?

  3. “What justifies the barriers to entry that privelege some members of society at the expense of others. To draw the bounds of society at the border is a completely specious move to ignore the most basic question of justice by defining it away.”
    So let’s imagine strict property rights are finally observed and national boarders are dissolved. 100 years in the future all the land of the 50 states that were once these United States are now each owned by an individual family who accumulated massive wealth and passed it fully to its successive heirs. Serfs return to the scene to toil others land. They must beg and compete with each other to enter the property of the Lords to ask permission to till some soil. One becomes infamous and realizes the injustices all around him. He works in the shadow to distribute a propaganda piece to all his fellow serfs….. he is wanted by the law and by the Lords of all the lands for he dared to ask in his flier, “What justifies the barriers to entry that privelege some members of society at the expense of others.” The flier gets wide dispersion, the serfs secretly organize, they revolt… gates are crashed and castles burned. The aristocracy, the affluent and the moneyed are sent fleeing for their lives. A new Nation is born and the Founding Fathers call it The United Club of American States.
    “I’m sincerely arguing that nationalist liberal egalitarianism is morally unserious arbitrary nonsense.”
    Makes me wonder if Will’s new home in Iowa has borders that others are to respect. If not I’ll be right over I need a few eggs from your fridge as I am all out. However, if as I suspect so, he does who is to enforce those boundary lines? Winston? His private army? the city ? the state? the nation? Each with its own border lines? Morally Unserious? Arbitrary non-sense? Wow! That’s pretty demeaning unless indeed you HAVE actually figured it all out like apparently you think you have.

  4. Oh and I would pretty much characterize your “job” as a modern day Vassal in service to a Lord. Your job is to protect the Lords borders and to help expand them. Since the early 70’s when men of wealth started such “institutes” to promote their title income and wealth inequality have BOOMED! Your job is to paint those who question this massive expansion of private wealth among the few as promoters of morally unserious arbitrary nonsense. You unseriuosly have not thought this through because a return to primacy of private borders to national ones is simply a return to aristocracy or serfdom. Or wait maybe you have thought this through and you are simply writing for the Lord as a Tory in 1776 might have done comfortable with THEIR position in life.

  5. Economics is the alchemy of the 21st Century.
    I was just born here, is all. Not much choice in it, really. I was yelling “Paris! Fucking Paris!” from the womb, but no. . .it had to be Jersey.
    What will our leaders do with us next, I wonder?

  6. Wow, Will. I am in awe of your power to parse out such complicated issues. I’m currently working on getting my partner’s legal status in this country all smoothed out, and it is shocking to me how many more rights and benefits I inherited, for no good reason other than my good luck at having been born slightly north of the Gadsden Purchase.
    My partner is a smart, capable entrepreneur who provides valuable services to several American clients, services which many Americans can’t or won’t do.
    Why is it OK for foreigners to buy American products, even buy stock in American companies, but they cannot physically stay in the US for more than a few months at a time? If capital can move freely across borders, then labor should cross freely, too.

  7. You seem to be suggesting that questions about social justice or fair economic distributions don’t make sense because it’s not entirely clear whom they’re addressed to, and that they’re not “moral” in the same way because they’re not universal or eternal — i.e., the institutions involved are contingent.
    But the same surely goes for rights like freedom of association and freedom of movement. Freedom of movement is a claim upon some coercive institution — you’re asking them to stop any other coercive institution or person stopping you from moving around the place. Same goes for freedom of association — you’re asking some Leviathan-like “club administrator” to come and kick the ass of anyone who prevents you associating with someone.
    In other words, your libertarian interest in rights and individuals seems like an updated version of the obligations of kings to the bourgeoisie. If you think you have access to a moral vocabulary/stock of ideas that is somehow independent of political organization and institutions, you should look at their history.
    Also, I don’t know if it’s pressing to interrogate the “club”/nation-state structure of the world before you do political philosophy. If your political goal is to make good changes in the world, and the present nation-state/”club” structure has existed for an awfully long time, is pretty universal, and doesn’t look like changing soon — and if changes to this order might cause unpredictable unintended consequences — then it seems fine to just assume it, and deal with institutions as they exist in the present. Including “clubs” which enforce laws based on membership, separate different ethno-cultural groups to some extent, etc.

  8. I think Wilkinson frames this issue incorrectly. To see this, let’s assume the Wilkinson’s theory of justice. The question of economic and social justice reduces to the question of what barriers of entry into careers is justified. Now, this is an extremely important question. For instance, the civil rights and suffragist movements claimed that it was unjust to discriminate (deny entry into a field) on the basis of race or gender. The justification for this claim was that there is no reason to think that race and gender are good reasons to deny entry into careers–that they are morally arbitrary. Thus, if an African-American is competent for a particular career, he should have to opportunity to enter it if she desires to do so.
    Wilkinson’s claim is that from the standpoint of justice citizenship is in the same category. Citizenship is a morally arbitrary aspect of a person’s identity and so not a legitimate reason to deny entry into a career. But, since states can place barriers on entry into careers, they can discriminate against people from other countries. Thus, the question of whether someone is a citizen or not becomes a matter of injustice.
    However, the issue is not, as Wilkinson says it is, one of the membership criteria of citizenship. As he says, citizenship is a morally arbitrary category. As such, it cannot be a matter of justice whether you are or are not a citizen. All that he shows is that it would be unjust to deny jobs to non-citizens. We can see this by comparing the claim to the civil rights movement. The injustice was that they were being discriminated against. A just society would not use race as a barrier of entry into jobs. However, a just society certainly doesn’t grant black people the right to become white. In the same way, while a just society shouldn’t discriminate against non-citizens (on Wilkinson’s grounds), that doesn’t mean that non-citizens also have the right to become citizens. In other words, the injustice is the discrimination against non-citizens, not the fact that they are non-citizens.
    Why is this relevant? Because it shows that Wilkinson is wrong to claim that social justice thinkers ignore this issue. The relevant issue is not the membership criteria of citizenship, but rather the rights of non-citizens. And this is a huge issue in the political philosophy literature. Essentially, this is the question of whether national partiality is justified, a question addressed by Rawls, Pogge, Appiah, and many other philosophers.

  9. “Club” is useful metaphor, but not perfect. The word is a diminutive — clubs are what you participate in apart from the “real world”. But when we talk about nationality (current and origin), skin colour, class identity, etc. (i.e. “clubs” that are difficult if not impossible to leave or join) and the outsized influence these involuntary memberships have on our freedom and wealth, the metaphor obscures as much as it reveals.
    Who is less serious: the progressives with an embarrassing blind spot for the unjust “club” of nationality, or one who thinks this one omission undoes all other arguments?

  10. While I do agree with the moral treatise you propose in this post, I believe it is an ideal to be worked for. In the modern reality I think a nation less world will leave failure. It is a government’s job to have a monopoly on coercion, ideally to prevent coercion between members of society. A liberal democracy I believe is the best form of government currently presented in the modern world (yes, my history textbooks taught me well to love my countries form of government) because it spreads the power vested in the organization that ideally maintains a monopoly on coercion, and therefore minimalize the chances that the government will break the ideal on liberty and abuse it’s monopoly on coercion. In the current society I believe having multiple smaller national governments is the only realistic way to have organizations that prevent cohersion in society as a global democracy would likely fail as it would be to big. This does create problems though as more powerful nations will likely abuse there cohersion on other nations. Still governments are needed to be a buffer on cohersion from corporations (I do not mean to critique corporations, I believe market capitalism in most cases is best, but it breaks down when the capitalists become the policy apparatus). Now I do believe societies should promote an ideal like Will proposes, ideally free immigration, although if immigration was completely free and there was a lack of sovereign boarders there would be great political backlash, and possibly a deterioration of government on a global level, without an institution to prevent coercion by corporations or ethnic groups to take over. I do believe that immigration should be quite lax, and not controlled by unionist special interests. Even though I do believe you are a little bit of an idealist in this post I did enjoy it a lot, and I am glad to see you are back so I can get my daily dose of Will Wilkinson, oh I do love your classical liberal philosophy. I think if everyone read WW there would be no more war.

  11. Question 1. Some members of Clubs A, B and C muse about Club D: “Wow, club D really watches out for its members; they really make sure everyone gets more equal use of the benefits of membership.”
    Is the nature of this admiration “moral” or not? If so, why isn’t it moral with respect to nation states?
    Question 2. Why assume egalitarianism (which I would charitably construe as just a desire for more equitable inequalities, but anyway…) has to be realized at the level of wages/prices? One obvious alternative approach is let price signals rule economic activity, then tax and redistribute; the question of whether one kind of economic activity is more ‘deserving” than another then becomes moot.

  12. Ignoring the troll…
    Will, I wonder whether there are political facts which you think can be taken as given for purposes of moral inquiry in the same way that you take economic facts as given…?
    Evidently you don’t attribute to them just the same status. The gap between the Canadian and the Mexican dingus-tightener is to be the object of direct moral criticism in a way that the gap between the American dingus-tightener and the American widget-polisher is not. T
    I know some of the moves that could be made here, but I don’t want to provide too much of a prompt. So let me start with: Do political facts about the world occupy a categorically different status from economic facts about the world for purposes of moral inquiry? If so, why? If not, then why is the fact of the border-controlling ‘nation-‘state up for moral criticism in a way that market outcomes aren’t?
    (As always, I agree with your analysis of nearly everything! But I’m pulling on a loose thread to see what unravels, partly because it seems relevant to your argument and partly because I’m independently interested in it.)

    1. These are awesome questions. I think I may just reproduce most of this comment and try to give my answer when I’ve got a free couple hours.

    2. Without presuming to anticipate Will’s response, here’s what I would offer:
      Market outcomes are outcomes of market processes. The market process itself is very much subject to moral criticism. Libertarians believe that the process “passes the test” of such criticism. As part of critical analysis we consider alternative systems and we say, market systems are the best systems for reasons XYZ.
      Political outcomes are outcomes of political processes. The political process itself is very much subject to moral criticism. Libertarians believe that our current political process “doesn’t pass the test” of such criticism. As part of critical analysis we consider alternative systems and we say, “constitutional democracies with a heavier-than-current emphasis on fundamental rights ABC are better than what we have now, for reasons XYZ.”
      So both economic and political systems are subject to moral criticism. One escapes unscathed, the other doesn’t.

      1. I think you’re confusing allocation with distribution here. The efficient allocation of resources, also known as markets, is morally neutral insofar as it works equally well for any previously existing distribution of resources. The distribution, however is where the moral rubber meets the road and where politics and economics intersect.
        It is politics that determines distribution and distribution determines the particular shape of a market.

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