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

66 thoughts

  1. Isn't every ideology about human flourishing? Some of my European friend roll their eyes when I argue against socialized medicine by using arguments for liberty. They tell me we Americans have a funny sense of liberty. Are we free if we're sick?I don't see where your libertarianism ends and social democracy begins. Are libertarians for pursuing different objectives? Is it just a matter of different means to the same end?What if it impinges on my freedom to exercise my faculties if I see others suffer? even if — especially if — that suffering was compatible with the possession of like liberty by those suffering (i.e. I didn't cause that suffering by the exercise of my freedom)? My freedom might be limited by taxes, but it is expanded by using those tax dollars to fund make-work programs for the poor. Are tax laws social norms?

  2. This is a bit of a tangent, but where would something like “hate speech” fit in? Certainly it could be construed as a form of social/emotional coercion, at least to some people (the offendees). Would you endorse “coercive limits to liberty” in the form of restricting speech in order to avoid the implicit coercion of certain speech?

  3. An unavoidable shortcoming of any discussion along these lines it is really really hard to succinctly define a criterion, using ordinary language, for what counts as a good law or a good social practice or a good government.Imagine if we were trying to come up with ordinary-language criteria for something being “red” (I guess you also have to imagine we hadn't devised the wave theory of light yet). My god, it'd be a nightmare.”Good” is more important than “red”, but how much faith do we really have that we can cleanly and succinctly define it, really? Is the law of equal liberty really an unambiguous rule? Don't we all have fairly complicated, cobbled-together notions of what is “good”? Isn't that fine? Doesn't the same thing hold for “liberty?”

  4. Will, wouldn't a better solution just be to call yourself a liberal? Perhaps small-state liberal, liberal with libertarian characteristics or dare I say, liberaltarian. For better or for worse, libertarians have always defined themselves as being opposed to only explicit, negative-right violating forms of coercion. For just about everyone, that's what libertarianism is. Liberalism, at least since Mill, has taken a more expansive view of liberty. And the difference between those two conceptions of freedom and liberty are what, for most, distinguish the two schools of thought. So, accept, you're not a doctrinaire libertarian, or even much of one at all! And there's nothing wrong with that!

  5. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Stabbing someone is considered unnacceptable by libertarians (unless you've somehow obtained consent) because your right to swing your knife ends where the other person begins. Badmouthing, shunning or otherwise using social sanction (such as with political correctness) is perfectly within ones' rights. To believe otherwise would be to say that one is obligated only to speak favorably or be indiscriminate in ones favors. No libertarian that I know of believes that and I think the same is true of you. You are heading into Obama's “quiet violence” of Imus and outsourcing here. Protection of property is not considered initiation of coercion because those who violate our property rights are considered to be aggressing against us. In Stephan Kinsella's terms they are estopped from objecting to our use of force in response.A quote from Max Stirner I like on the subject:”The State cannot give up the claim that its laws and ordinances are sacred. At this the individual ranks as the unholy (barbarian, natural man, “egoist”) over against the State, exactly as he was once regarded by the Church; before the individual the State takes on the nimbus of a saint. Thus it issues a law against dueling. Two men who are both at one in this, that they are willing to stake their life for a cause (no matter what), are not to be allowed this, because the State will not have it: it imposes a penalty on it. Where is the liberty of self-determination then? It is at once quite another situation if, as e. g. in North America, society determines to let the duelists bear certain evil consequences of their act, e. g. withdrawal of the credit hitherto enjoyed. To refuse credit is everybody's affair, and, if a society wants to withdraw it for this or that reason, the man who is hit cannot therefore complain of encroachment on his liberty: the society is simply availing itself of its own liberty. That is no penalty for sin, no penalty for a crime. The duel is no crime there, but only an act against which the society adopts counter-measures, resolves on a defense. The State, on the contrary, stamps the duel as a crime, i.e. as an injury to its sacred law: it makes it a criminal case. The society leaves it to the individual's decision whether he will draw upon himself evil consequences and inconveniences by his mode of action, and hereby recognizes his free decision; the State behaves in exactly the reverse way, denying all right to the individual's decision and, instead, ascribing the sole right to its own decision, the law of the State, so that he who transgresses the State's commandment is looked upon as if he were acting against God's commandment — a view which likewise was once maintained by the Church.”

  6. Libertarianism is defined thusly:”A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim.”Note that there's nothing in there against using force _after_ someone else has initiated it, to defend yourself or others.You speak of arbitrary but systemic social exclusion. To use an example from my home state, to a libertarian it is wrong to hold a gun to person's head (which is what a law is really about) and say “You must not marry these two men.” It is _also_ wrong to hold a gun to a person's head and say “You must marry these two men.” It is _not_ wrong to kill the person holding the gun in either of those two hypotheticals.Todd Seaver seems to be making the mistake of thinking that feminism inherently requires initiating force, and is therefore incompatible with libertarianism, but this is not necessarily true–it depends entirely on what, exactly, the feminists are doing. Certainly there's nothing unlibertarian about denouncing unacceptable but voluntary social outcomes. It _is_ unlibertarian to forcibly prevent someone from making an unacceptable choice.

  7. Thank heavens you and Kerry are not dorm-room libertarians. If forced to classify by their system, you're not libertarian either, however. I would say you have crossed their absurdly narrow boundaries into classical liberalism. It's ok by me – but then I'm a girl. Seaver I'd argue has a confused notion of the relationship between the family and the individual. He has not through carefully how we leave our family roles and become citizens. This is not to say that as a skirt I'm happy entirely with Kerry's stated notions of feminism. I would like a positive feminism less focused on oppression and more on equal respect & desert.

  8. This argument is maximally frustrating. Todd Seavey and Kerry Howley are both smart, both libertarian, and both know it. There's a real issue in this debate; there's also been obnoxious posturing (e.g., here and here.)My thoughts on this are complicated but if libertarianism is about What should the government do? then Seavey is right. If libertarianism is about a more comprehensive version of freedom, then Howley/Wilkinson are right.But here's a challenge for you Will (or for Kerry): we can all agree, I think, that legal gender discrimination has been more-or-less banned in the US. Indeed, many make a strong case that certain important parts of the law are unfairly anti-male.In your piece above, you mentioned that you thought it would be a violation of people's liberty if

    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.

    .By way of examples, can you explain what you mean by “arbitrary yet systemic social exclusion” on the basis of [ female] gender in today's America? Can you explain what the state should do about women who are “having the development of their interests and talents constantly discouraged and their aspirations and confidence constantly undermined?”In short, the key concept to reconciling these two positions is “Wrongs without Remedies.” This is a sort of conservative mantra (although most IRL conservatives are too dumb to understand it).A less-catchy, more-libertarian version of the mantra would be: “Wrongs without State Remedies.”

  9. Your first line of argument presumes that socialized medicine will succeed at delivering what it promises. There are good reasons to believe that it won't, and indeed that it never has. We won't be more free if we are still sick AND if our money is being taken as well. (Obligatory disclaimer: My comments should not be taken as an endorsement of the current system of the United States, which has huge problems of its own, none of which I think can be solved by socialism.)

  10. Will, I rarely disagree with you but I think you're wrong here.Libertarianism is a theory about the proper role of the state in society. It takes a position on how the state should relate to its citizens. It is not concerned with how wives should relate to their husbands, how employees should relate to their bosses, how children should relate to their parents, how white people should relate to black people, etc.It's certainly true that these relationships can involve coercion, and there's certainly no contradiction between libertarianism's concerns with state coercion and concerns about other kinds of coercion. But libertarianism is concerned with coercion by the state. There are other kinds of coercion, they just aren't what libertarianism is focused on. Which is why we have terms like “feminism” to describe theories that focus on coercion in other spheres of life.One can be a supporter of traditional gender roles (and non-state social pressures to conform to traditional gender roles) and also be a libertarian in the sense that he doesn't think the state should treat men and women differently. You might think such a person is a bad person (I might agree) but he's not being inconsistent or unlibertarian.Libertarianism is not the view that “coercion is never social or emotional.” Social and emotional coercion simply isn't what it's focused on. That isn't to say that libertarians shouldn't be concerned with social or emotional coercion, but those concerns are not entailed by libertarianism.

  11. Matt Zeitlin, TGGP, and Tim Lee are right. You want libertarianism to do too much. Not every concern about social interaction is a libertarian concern.Like Tim, I usually agree with you, and I think you are wrong here, ergo you should write more on this subject.

  12. Matt, Well, as I've written before, I do call myself a liberal. But liberals think I'm being shady, and most people are going to call me a libertarian no matter what, since “for just about everyone” libertarianism in fact has nothing to do with foundational political philosophy, and everything to do with your view of the size of government, the efficacy of free markets, and consensual crimes.

  13. Will WIlkinson, your are very clearly not a libertarian. Your a utilitarian, since you agree with Spencer. American Libertarianism has it's roots in the natural rights that founders like Jefferson believed in, and Spooner, Hayek, Flynn and Rothbard championed. Your conception of coercion could be interpreted to justify almost any type of physical force by a state, which is as far from any idea of libertarianism as I've ever heard. You say Libertarians are confused on the meaning of coercion, yet then later offer two possibilities for the meaning of that term and say you support the one that no other libertarian I've ever heard of supports. Real libertarians aren't confused at all about what freedom and coercion are, indeed the none aggression principle defines libertarians. Where does your freedom to swing your arms end? Right at the tip of my nose. That's because I own my body and if you assault it you are aggressing against me. If I use my body and energy to grow crops on land I'm rightfully tending and you take those crops, you have aggressed against me by stealing the product of my work. The natural right of freedom is ownership and control of ones body and the product of ones labor. Traditionally in America when a boy becomes a man he comes to understands that he is responsible for his own life and no one owes him a living, nor does he owe anyone else a living. Government and the watery ideas that support it are the fantasy that everyone can live at someone elses expense. Those like Spencer who would use the state to force others to support their social and emotional desires would be surprised to find out if they tried, that obtaining that support is always more succsessful when done with the voluntary cooperation of others in equal trade.

  14. We can put superscripts on different sense of 'libertarianism' if you like to keep things unambiguous. To my mind, libertarianism, the theory of the proper role of the state, is attractive because liberty is. There are many other grounds for accepting political libertarianism. If you want to be dogged about denying that the project of trying to maximize liberty is libertarian some obvious sense, then, well, fine. But it should not shock some people that one might be motivated to accept political libertarianism on the basis of an interest in human freedom.

  15. I agree with Matt: what you're describing is liberalism. Libertarianism is the strand of liberal thought that focuses on the state as a threat to liberty. Feminism is the strand of liberal thought that focuses on patriarchy as a threat to liberty. There are libertarians who are not liberals apart from their concerns about state coercion, just as there are feminists (e.g. Andrea Dworkin) who are not liberals apart from their concerns about patriarchal coercion. It makes no more sense to say that libertarianism is necessarily anti-patriarchal than it does to say that feminism is necessarily anti-statist. It may be the case that a good liberal should be both, but that doesn't make them the same thing.

  16. Tim, A special interests in the justification of state coercion is not unique to libertarianism; it's practically the whole ballgame of political philosophy since Hobbes. There are lots of theories about the justification of state coercion and about the obligations of citizens to follow the law. I reiterate: libertarians, in the sense I was criticizing (the non-anarchist Rand-flavored kind), are IN FAVOR of the state's limiting liberty through the threat and use of physical coercion. They simply accept that the use of state coercion is justified when it comes to protecting legitimate property claims, or enforcing contracts, and that's it. Like I said, if that's what libertarianism is, then it's false, since there is no good argument that justifies state coercion in the protection of property, but not state coercion in the pursuit of other aims similarly congenial to the commonweal. There are lots of BAD arguments in this area, most of them about natural rights to property. Do you think libertarianism JUST IS a position on rights that puts state coercion in defense of property inside the bounds of legitimacy, and other kinds of outside the bounds? Because THAT'S asking too much of “libertarianism.” Indeed, by freighting the term with false assumptions, it makes libertarianism something no one should accept.

  17. “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.”Will, who are you kidding? I may be wrong but my impression is that *all* libertarians think of libertarianism this way. Quoting Herbert Spencer to argue that libertarianism encompasses a more sophisticated idea of coercion is like quoting the Bible to argue that Christianity is really about love. You can only support such a flattering portrait of either doctrine by ignoring how its adherents actually understand it themselves.Face it — while you may have started as a libertarian you have now thought your way into becoming something more individual, more idiosyncratic. Your sensitivity to non-monetary, non-legalistic aspects of life has taken you deeper into those topics than libertarians know how to go. I get the feeling the traditional libertarian in you only comes out occasionally, in episodes of reflexive, unthinking, Hulk-like rage, to call people hacks when they criticize Ayn Rand. (I kid, I kid…)But in fact you are now something else. You are a kind of pioneer so be proud of that.

  18. “Justified coercion,” i.e., self-defense does not in any way “limit liberty.” It is part and parcel of the essence of liberty. And, of course, freedom-lovers do not argue against “coercion,” per se. They argue against the _initiation_ of coercion. And the type of “coercion” involves only those types of force that threaten or actually harm one's body or property. Strawman fallacies are typical of statists/collectivists but do not reflect reality. This writer is most assuredly no libertarian, no lover of freedom, and no friend to those who suffer under the boots of the powerful and the connected.

  19. Spencer was arguably an anarchist, Hayek was not much of a champion of natural rights, and Rothbard considered Mises a utilitarian. Make if that what you will.

  20. Russ, You see what you did there? You start talking about the “self-defense” of property. The laws, the cops, and the locks on your door are certainly intended to limit the liberty of people who might want to walk through your front door. You just think that it is OK to limit others' liberty in this way, and so do I. But if you insist on the idea that coercion in protection of property isn't coercive because property claims are legitimate, then you're JUST LIKE an egalitarian liberal who insists that income redistribution isn't coercive because some property claims aren't legitimate when others are in need. The real argument is about the conditions under which state coercion is an isn't justified, not about the meaning of “liberty” or “coercion.”

  21. Ah, so I am wrong. Thanks for the reference! Very interesting.Let me expose my ignorance even further. Does David D Friedman's perspective, and Will's, represent a well-defined minority within libertarian discourse or is it on the fringe? Sorry if this is a stupid question.

  22. What is the difference between a well-defined minority and the fringe? (That is a rhetorical question.)For what it's worth, Friedman's views (the consequentialist ones, not so much the anarchist ones) are shared by many (most?) economists who self-describe as libertarian and work out of the neoclassical (as opposed to Austrian) tradition, most notably his father, Milton.For more on the problems with defining liberty, see Daniel Klein's Mere Libertarianism: Blending Hayek and Rothbard [.pdf]A taste:

    That the ambiguities are countless is undeniable. The limits of ownership, rights of joint property, criteria for nuisance or invasion, definition of “threat” or “risk” to one’s property, relevance of intent, definition of “use” in homesteading, status of brand-names, trademarks, patents, copyrights, and stolen property, criteria for consent, implicit terms of contracts, status of promises, issues of children and the senile, liability of principals for the torts of agents, the theory of punishment, compensation of duress, standards of proof in court, etc., all involve serious gray areas and matters of interpretation—as the libertarian theorists David Hume (1751: 26-32), Wordsworth Donisthorpe (1895: 1-121) and David Friedman (1989: 167-76) have explained. Sensible judgments on such matters will depend on particulars of time and place — the paths of technology, of precedent, of expectations, and so on. It is foolish to think that a definition of liberty could ever spell out definitive interpretations and clear demarcation lines.

  23. Let me add to that: Will's thinking about liberty is much closer to Hayek's than Hayek's is to Locke or Rothbard. That is not necessarily a good thing, as Hayek's view of liberty is terribly confused. But Hayek was certainly no Lockean or Rothbardian about natural rights and liberty.From Daniel Klein's Mere Libertarianism: Blending Hayek and Rothbard

    Others have offered other concepts of liberty. In The Constitution of Liberty Hayek offers a series of passages and remarks that attempt to delineate his own idea of liberty. A brief examination of some of the passages ought to establish, as argued by many critics (Viner 1961, Hamowy 1961, 1978; Brittan 1988: 85-92; Kukathas 1989: 151-65), that Hayek’s hints about the meaning of liberty are deeply flawed.In the book, Hayek never defines liberty in a Lockean fashion (comingclosest at 140-41). Rather, he says, “Whether [someone] is free or not [dependson] whether somebody else has power so to manipulate the conditions as to make him act according to that person’s will rather than his own” (13). Liberty is the “independence of the arbitrary will of another” (12); it is the absence of“coercion by other men” (19, 421).2 The state of liberty is “that condition of menin which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society”(11). Each hint introduces additional terms that call out for definition.

  24. Will,This is a great followup, it helped me quite a bit. I suppose this is true, and all it is is a justification for libertarianism in the name of utilitarianism. I can get behind that.I suppose my problem is that social and emotional coercion seem to be flexible and subjective. I think I need a more clear definition of what these mean, because it seems to me they necessarily must be tied to a baseline standard of freedom.I would also say that the natural rights conception is useful in that it provides clear rules that also happen to mostly coincide with what is in the utilitarian best interests of society.

  25. Don't libertarians often think of themselves as considering certain types of coercion justified (like the coercion necessary to protect private property) and other types of coercion unjustified (like the coercion necessary to redistribution)? And then, when they speak, they just use the terms “coercive” and “non-coercive” and by that what they really mean is “actions that are justified coercion” and “actions that are unjustified coercion”. Now, when they wheel out the word “coercion” to criticize redistribution, they are making the mistake of thinking that 1) other forms of state action are non-coercive and 2) this particular form of state action is particularly coercive (or something).Now there are two projects we should be concerned about. First is, what is the political philosophy – what justifies it and then what does it say about the world – we care about. And second is, how do we communicate that. The problem is that the way we communicate that – through “rights-talk” in which it's not coercive to talk about the gov't protecting private property, but it is coercive to talk about redistribution – has confused people into thinking that that's what the political philosophy of libertarianism is.

  26. Micha, Thanks for all the great references.One of the reasons I am so attracted to Hayek is that he is not pathologically averse to conceptual ambiguity in the many libertarian theorists are. This improves his ratio of true to false utterances. It also raises his ratio or cryptic to clear utterances. It's a worthwhile tradeoff. I agree that his conception of liberty needs refinement, but I think he pretty clearly has the right idea. There is a continuum of tactics for manipulating other people, for reordering their preferences, to induce behavior that people other than the agent herself demands. Physical coercion is near the limit of directness and effectiveness. It is thus an especially important threat to freedom, and it is especially important to limit and regulate its use. But it is not unique in being a threat to freedom. Those who are convinced of the high value freedom are right to emphasize the threat of physical coercion, and especially its concentration in the state, but are misguided if they think that there is nothing more than limiting state coercion in establishing the conditions for human liberty.

  27. Real libertarians aren't confused at all about what freedom and coercion are“This is exactly the kind of thing that causes Robin Hanson to start scolding us from his barrel. The friends – the small group of real libertarians – share the belief and they are happy! thrilled! to trumpet the real in-group in public. It is filled with what Hanson calls evil pleasure. Meanwhile, the rest of us just slap the dimmer off as we tip-toe outta this rant into the sunny world outside.

  28. Will,What state actions do you approve of that go beyond what traditional libertarians would sanction?What do you think the state should do to combat emotional or social coercion?

  29. Gil,(1) Who are the “traditional libertarians”?(2) Mostly, enforcing positive rights to development and education for children. (Most libertarian theory is completely useless in recognizing that the capacity to exercise liberty must be developed, and that this implies things about the rights of children.) Otherwise, It depends a lot on history and the capacity of the state to apply policy effectively. I favor the Civil Rights Act and some labor market “equal opportunity” regulations, which I think have been enormously effective in shifting social norms in a net liberty-enhancing way.

  30. So I can't speak for Will. But I imagine the position is something like: Yes, there should be coercive limits to liberty that restrict speech. But such coercion should take the form of social ostracism, voluntary boycotts etc. The reason for this is not that state restrictions are inherently unacceptable but that giving the state the authority to determine what is or is not hate speech dramatically increases the probability that the state will engage in wrongful coercion.

  31. fyi, this sort of justification for libertarianism is the right way to bring liberals (in the common usage) over to your side. At least thats what makes you writing for more agreeable for me. In the last few months my thinking has shifted in your direction (though there are other causes too). So as a political (to say nothing of philosophical) strategy you're definitely on the right track.Of course if all these people want to kick you out of libertarianism for writing this I'm not sure a liberal-libertarian entente is very promising.

  32. I'm glad Will finally gave some real-life examples of how Wilitarianism would play out in actual policy. But where do you draw the line? What practices should be outlawed and which should simply be condemned? Unfortunately a lot of laws which “help” me as a female employee would hurt me as a female entrepreneur. I'm guessing Will is OK with laws against sexual harassment in the work place. But I think he'd be horrified at how these laws have slowly oozed into the private sphere; at the last seminar I was subjected to in California, we were told that our sexual behavior outside of the workplace could be considered harassment if a subordinate saw it and was upset by it. Needless to say, myself and every gay guy in the room were dying. So if you're part of the antisocial coercion crowd, be very careful about how you make good on your beliefs.

  33. (1) The ones who claim the state should limit its actions to defending against force and fraud (including property rights).(2) I assume that this doesn't require public schools. And, how much education do children have a positive right to? And, does this positive right imply that the state must subsidize education, or just that parents must provide it (like food)?I would like to see a lot of norm-shifting towards more children's rights and respect, but I'm wary of starting down the slope of trying to legislate them.How would the Wilkinsonian Constitution describe what coercive norm-shifting tasks the state could/should engage in?I'm sure that many coercive projects (e.g. the War on Drugs) have proponents who argue that they would shift social norms in a net liberty-enhancing way. What are the criteria for expected effectiveness? Is it ok with you, institutionally, as long as it's popular enough to get politicians elected?

  34. Fantastic post. I thought about replying to Seavey's latest, but finally realized I was too frustrated by how obtuse he was being to come up with anything worth reading.

  35. BTW, Will, did I already ask you what you think of 'republican' 'non-domination' views of liberty? When I reread Constitution of Liberty last year, I was really quite surprised by how much Hayek seemed to be within that tradition …

  36. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Do you really think that by locking my door I am coercing against anybody? Without any connection to my door I don't see how that is. If I had locked them inside a room you would have a point. Without such a connection to my door nobody has any libertarian grounds to object to my locking it. Switching the subject to sexism, if I am an employer it is my business who I decide to engage in labor contracts with. I am not obligated to hire anybody. If Alfalfa is president of the He-Man Woman Hater's Club it is his prerogative to choose to associate with some and not others and there are no libertarian grounds for anyone to complain that he is using invalid means of determining that and demand that he associate with someone he has chosen not to. This is why most libertarians say we have negative but not positive rights. I however write in The Myth of Natural Rights that nobody possesses any moral rights at all.

  37. There is no good argument that justifies state coercion in the protection of property, but not state coercion in the pursuit of other aims similarly congenial to the commonweal.But that's the whole point, isn't it? Libertarians are precisely those liberals who are most likely to think that state coercion in pursuit of other aims will not be congenial to the commonweal. Of course, other liberals (and political philosophers in general) are also concerned with state coercion to some extent, but they tend to take a more optimistic view of the consequences of state coercion in more circumstances than libertarians do. Obviously, some of the reasons libertarians think this aren't very persuasive. But if you don't think any of them are persuasive, then you're not a libertarian.If your point is that many libertarians draw an unduly sharp line between coercion to enforce property and contract on the one hand and all other kinds of state coercion on the other, I might be inclined to agree with you. But that's a different issue than asking whether libertarianism is a theory about patriarchy, racism, and so forth. To put it in Wilkinsonian terms, libertarianism JUST IS a theory about coercion by the state. To be clear, I wholly agree with Kerry in the great Howley /Seavey debate. I think libertarianism are certainly compatible, and probably complementary. I just don't think they're identical.

  38. Will writes, “there is no good argument that justifies state coercion in the protection of property, but not state coercion in the pursuit of other aims similarly congenial to the commonweal.”I think that's the crux of the disagreement here, and as far as I can tell the burden is not on Will to justify his position (accept perhaps to show why these other things count as “coercion”), but on those who accept coercion to protect property rights, but reject it in other potentially liberty-maximizing areas. I agree there are other types of coercion beyond physical aggression, but I found myself initially agreeing with Tim and disagreeing with Will.I haven't properly thought this through, but could there be a distinction based on the coercion necessary to protect property, and the coercion necessary to protect the “other aims”? After all, protection of several property seems to fall into the Hayekian category of “rules of just conduct of universal application.” And though property law certainly has its share of disputes, the state apparatus doesn't need to possess an incredible amount of knowledge to protect property: we just need to know who owns what. Plus, protection of property is a general rule that allows for “all to use their knowledge for their own purposes.”On the other hand, to protect against “emotional or social threats,” the state would require vastly more knowledge. Will cites the Civil Rights Act (CRA) as one example of the state protecting against what he rightly perceives as liberty-limiting “emotional or social threats.” The CRA likely has achieved most of its objectives, and by all accounts Will is right: that legislation has contributed to “shifting social norms in a net liberty-enhancing way.” But such legislation seems to be the very kind of thing Hayek had in mind when he wrote that: “… when we decide each issue solely on what appears to be its individual merits, we always overestimate the advantages of central direction. Our choice will regularly appear to be one between a certain known and tangible gain and the mere probability of the prevention of some unknown beneficial action by unknown persons. If the choice between freedom and coercion is thus treated as a matter of expediency, freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance. As in the particular instance we hardly ever know what would be the consequences of allowing people to make their own choice, to make the decision in each instance depending only on the foreseeable particular results must lead to the progressive destruction of freedom. There are probably few restrictions on freedom which could not be justified on the ground that we do not know the particular loss it will cause.”In other words, if we allow the state to tinker around the edges of society to correct every perceived “emotional or social threat,” in the long run the outcome will be net liberty-reducing (even if we can point to some that are net liberty-enhancing). As a result of that observation, Hayek wrote that “freedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages …”So the distinction between protection of property and the protection against “emotional or social threats” is that the former is a general principle that allows for freewheeling social evolution, and the latter requires social engineering toward particular ends, which would in the long run be freedom-reducing.All in all, then, I think we can recognize that there are “emotional or social threats” that are meaningfully coercive, while still maintaining that the state is ill-equipped to deal with them (or that, if it deals with them we will be worse off).I can already think of half a dozen arguments against this position, but I just wanted to keep the conversation going with a potential distinction for the central question.Thanks to Will and everyone for this interesting conversation. Surely this merits a “Cato Unbound” or a “Free Will” episode.Incidentally, readers may find this article useful:…And all my Hayek quotes came from this one:

  39. Tim,The argument put forth by “thick” left-libertarians isn't that the two are identical, but that they are closely connected, causally, logically, or rhetorically. See: Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin. Will here seems to be making what Charles Johnson calls a “Thickness from Grounds” argument:

    Second, libertarians have many different ideas about the theoretical foundation for the nonaggression principle—that is, about the best reasons for being a libertarian. But whatever general foundational beliefs a given libertarian has, those beliefs may have some logical implications other than libertarianism alone. Thus there may be cases in which certain beliefs or commitments could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se, but could not be rejected without logically undermining the deeper reasons that justify the nonaggression principle. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without accepting these commitments or beliefs, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism.

    Of course, Charles speaks in NAP-compatible language, while Will does not. But the argument remains the same: on whatever grounds Will derives his libertarianism, he also derives his opposition to bigotry.

  40. Jack,The left-libertarian project has two components: speaking to the left (that's you) and speaking to the libertarians who do not already consider themselves left-libertarians (they are the people who want to kick Will out of libertarianism). The first component often seems easier than the second, surprisingly enough.

  41. TGGP, I'm not sure I entirely agree with the argument, but if I were to make a libertarian argument that by locking a door you can coerce someone, I would mention the encirclement problem and the common law solution of easements:

    Suppose that the states owns all the land along the border. Then we have the same situation as one in which one person buys all the land surroundig another person’s property, thus keeping them prisoner (if they were on it at the time) or keeping them away from their proeprty (if they were off it). Since you can’t legitimately use your property in a way that interfere’s with the liberty and property of others, you are obligated to provide an easement.

  42. I second pushmedia's questions.If liberty is awesome as a central organizing principle of mankind because it tends to lead to the maximum human flourishing, why don't we just say our central organizing principle is “maximum human flourishing”? It seems very much like it is the latter that is doing all the work here.I agree with a lot of the criticism of well-intentioned but harmful government initiatives. But isn't it an empirical question whether liberty-reducing programs tend to be harmful? What if we found a really awesome way to implement such programs so that they were really likely to maximize human flourishing? Is this totally impossible?I guess I'm sympathetic to the idea that while flourishing is the end goal, as a practical matter liberty had better be absolutely front and center because otherwise our good intentions will take over and we'll start restricting our freedoms too much.It's kind of like how the Bill of Rights puts some rights absolutely front and center, so that we don't dupe ourselves into giving up our freedoms. Libertarianism might ultimately aim at human flourishing, but essentially it exists to say “keep your eye on the ball — if you reduce liberty you are not helping.” As a philosophy, it is basically a reminder to fallible humans about the best means to the end of human flourishing.

  43. Will, thanks for this–you often explain my views better than I do.Greg N: I think you have explained, rather precisely, why I am politically a libertarian even though I'm very open to the idea of positive rights in theory. In theory, if we could promote human flourishing (for some definition of flourishing) through intrusions on people's liberty, that would be good. In practice, we're more likely to muck it up than not; we compensate for the “oh, sure, we can fix that” bias by creating an institutional bias in the opposite direction.If we allow the state to intervene only when there is clear and overwhelming evidence that the intervention will, in fact, definitely make things better, we should get a pretty decent ratio of successes to failures. But this criterion is far, far more state-limiting than what we're working with now.

  44. Will, thank you so much for saving me the trouble of finishing the post I started the other day. Expanding what you said in somewhat fewer words:Coercion is not only physical. (Friedman–with his single/narrow-minded focus on physical coercion–had me repeatedly banging the spoon on the highchair recently as I re-read Capitalism and Freedom.)Coercion occurs even absent an (identifiable) individual or institutional coercer.There is situational coercion. A worker in a town where the jobs have disappeared is coerced into moving away from loved ones.(It's true that the ultimate coercion may be physical–the laid-off worker faces physical eviction–but most situational coercion is some steps removed from the physical. The sheriff's deputy is not the significant coercer–the economic situation is.)Every economic/social/political system–including economic libertarianism–creates situational coercion. (When that coercion is positive, we call it incentive.)Every tax and spending policy–including one with a libertarian bent–is social engineering.”If people do better in a system that…[blah de blah blah]…that is justified coercion.”If people do better…We're reduced to utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number.“that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man,”If that liberty includes the realistic situational opportunity to rise above one's parents' station, it's quite clear from available post-war data that progressive economic policies are far more effective than libertarian in securing those blessings of liberty:…(This without even citing Bartels–who, I should say, you and Manzi only manage to snipe at, not seriously refute.)

  45. I've never read such unclear writing. Perhaps because libertarianism is so clear in comparison.“These libertarians are also notoriously guilty of pretending that their favorite kinds of coercion aren’t. “Huh?

  46. If he'd repeated the word “coercion” at the end would it have really made that much difference in clarity?I don't think it's unclear. But, it has a style and a character that makes you do a little more work than usual, sometimes. There's usually enough of a payoff to make it worth it, though.

  47. Will, when you say you favor the Civil Rights Act, do you mean you also support the parts of the Act that outlaw discrimination by private companies?Since then, anti-discrimination laws have been interpreted to cover even many private clubs. Do you think that is justified?Continuing on the theme of anti-discrimination laws, how do you feel about cases like this or this where there seems to be a conflict between a right to choose who to live with (presumably a more fundamental liberty than the right to employ anyone of your choice) and anti-discrimination laws? What do you think about hate-speech laws (the kind that exists in Canada and much of Europe)? For instance, would you agree with this decision?(Sorry for asking so many questions: I am trying to get a more concrete feel about where exactly you differ with standard libertarian views as far as policy prescriptions are concerned)

  48. Will,Aren't there some ways in which social coercion is desirable and necessary? How about ostracizing racists, or social exclusion as a punishment for bullying ? There are many ways in which societal pressure may feel coercive. But that shouldn't mean all taboos and social stigmas are wrong and should be eliminated (particularly through legislation). There's a role for shaming people into good behavior, and it's much nicer to do it that way than legislating them into good behavior. At some point, people can decide to resist social pressure and do what they want anyway. Which is what legitimizes social pressure as a non-coercive means of affecting social policy; that you CAN choose to resist it, but that other members of society have a right to impose that pressure when it is in their interest. People can choose not to associate with you if they believe something you are doing is wrong, and you have to be willing to make the sacrifice to accept that other members of society maybe aren't going to accept you. This is a bit like the political correctness debate. There's a lot of social pressure on college campuses to conform to a particular code of conduct, in order to relieve others of social pressures (I.e. gays, racial minorities). But at some point, conformity becomes coercion. So we end up arbitrating between which social group is pressuring which other group and what the right degress and kinds of social coercion are acceptable. Isn't it better to stay out of it altogether, and accept that part of life, and part of attaining freedom, for onself, is going to be resisting the pressures imposed upon you by peers, family, and society at large? I've always felt that one must “overcome” those kinds of things (at the very lest) in order to be truly free. That allows us the possibility of affecting social change through non-statist mechanisms (peer pressure), while also permitting all members of society the freedom to choose to resist that pressure. Which makes social evolution ever more truly a matter of persuasion rather than force. We can't forsee what is the “correct” social norm, but we can allow various norms to do combat in a field of battle unregulated by state intervention.

  49. I'm surprised that the name “Mill” has only come up once here. It should be unsurprising that political libertarians, who'd like to forcefully abolish systems of political control, are frequently (what could be called) social libertarians, who'd like to apply strong counterpressure to systems of social control.To be sure, in political discussions, political libertarians often set aside social matters. But that's because they think political means are inappropriate for the achievement of social goals. Maybe right-wing libertarians in 20th century America have tended to see social matters as unimportant, but the main historical streams of libertarianism are not like that.

  50. The author makes the mistake of talking about libertarians as being opposed to coercion. This is only partly true. In being for freedom, libertarians recognize the right to use coercive means to protect life, liberty, and justly acquired property. What we oppose is aggression, i.e. the *initiation* of force.See for a short video that does a fair job summarizing the philosophy.

  51. The author makes the mistake of talking about libertarians as being opposed to coercion. This is only partly true. In being for freedom, libertarians recognize the right to use coercive means to protect life, liberty, and justly acquired property. What we oppose is aggression, i.e. the *initiation* of force.See for a short video that does a fair job summarizing the philosophy.

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