u Notes from the Underground: Understanding libertarianism better

Understanding libertarianism better

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Annie Zaidi has a post where she says that endorsing libertarianism is a way to escape the fact that we are hurting each other all the time, in the guise of greater liberty. (Link via Uma.) I'll try to refute some of her arguments here. Here, I am trying to present libertarian thought as I understand it; I dont have the space here to explain the nuances of my views regarding the individual points. But I mostly agree with what I write next. Consider this as a mini libertarianism introduction.

Annie begins:
I took a test, and it turns out I’m libertarian.
Yet, on the face of it, who isn’t a libertarian?

If the essential guiding philosophy of libertarianism is ‘liberty’, then I certainly am one.

Freedom - of the individual, of the community, of the mind, of the body, of the species, of other species, of speech, of action, of thought, of expression, of enterprise, of art, of science, of trade, of service – is precious.

If there is one thing worth fighting for – it is freedom. The right to live as you choose. The right to say what you think. The right to do what you will – as long as you’re not hurting anybody.

But that is a bit of a stumbling block - this business of 'victimless' living. It is so easy to assume that you’re not hurting someone else, and so impossible to believe it. Like the poet said, ‘No man is an island…’
[Emphasis hers.]

Her definition of libertarianism itself is flawed, and it leads to much of the confusion later on. Libertarianism holds that you ought to be free to do whatever you want to do as long as you do not infringe on other's rights to do whatever they want; not that you can do whatever you want to do so long as you are not hurting anybody. It doesnt say anything about not hurting someone else. It does say something about not coercing others. The distinction between hurting and coercion seems obvious enough to me. I can easily hurt the "religious sentiments" of some communities by exhibiting the paintings of M. F. Hussain or screening the Da Vinci Code; but I will not have coerced anyone by these acts, because no one is obliged to watch them.

It is important to understand that libertarianism is more a political philosophy than a moral philosophy. It attempts to explain what ought to be the rights of an individual rather than say what is correct for an individual to do in a given situation.

Also, libertarianism is not some kind of hedonism which tells the individual to only maximise his own pleasure and forget about others. As I said, it does not ask you to do one thing or the other. It says that you are the best person to decide what you want to do with yourself and your life. It merely says that someone sitting 600 miles away in Delhi in an AC hall called the Parliament and dreaming about his next kickback does not have the right to decide what you can and cannot do with your life. It is first and foremost, an expression of humility; humility that one distant group of persons cannot decide what values a large and diverse society should live by.

To get back to Annie's post, her confusion between hurting someone and coercing someone becomes more apparent as one goes through all her "real-life examples" that can apparently put libertarians in a bind.

You want a divorce.
Your husband doesn’t. Would a libertarian go ahead with the divorce? Because the husband is going to hurt like hell... What’re you going to do?
[Emphasis hers.]
You wont be breaching libertarianism whether you divorce your husband or not. The thing libertarianism is concerned with is that you have the right to divorce. It is totally upto you to decide what is moral.

She goes on to give similar examples which have nothing to do with libertarianism -- which attempts to delineate what are the rights of individuals -- but which have a lot to do with moral philosophy. Libertarianism is not, I repeat, a moral philosophy.

The next interesting example is this:
Let’s say you drive a car.
You need this car. You may have worked your backside off to acquire and fuel this car. You might drive very carefully, following all the traffic rules, but what will you do about pollution? Pollution in a major city might translate into a toddler being exposed to the equivalent of twenty cigarettes a day. If there are one million cars and one million toddlers…?

This again is a decision the individual must make. But since this is the classic externality argument that crops up everywhere and implicitly favours government intervention, let me attempt a defense of the usual libertarian arguments against such intervention.

The externality argument says that, since an individual may not have to bear the full consequences of his/her acts, such acts may impose "negative externalities" on the rest of the society. Negative externalities are the most commonly cited class of market failures, and present a plausible case in which the liberties of an individual ought to be constrained for the "greater common good".

In response, there is the argument that there is no such thing as market failure; only a failure of transient business models. I agree somewhat with these arguments, but one can always counter-conjecture that it might be too late until we wait for new business models that do not suffer from the failure of earlier business models (like, for example, in the case of Global Warming, it might be too late for us to wait until the majority of the world shifts to cleaner fues).

The argument I like better is this: merely establishing the existence of negative externalities is not reason enough for curtailing the liberties of individuals. One must establish that curtailing the liberties of individuals will actually solve the problem at hand. In particular, one must weigh governmental failure and market failure, keeping in mind whether government interventions in the past have actually solved the market failure they were intended to solve. We should also take into account the opportunity cost of the lost trade, the higher barriers to entry due to regulation and the resulting greater likelihood of monopoly, and the possibility that we might have regulated out more promising business models/technologies that might have solved better the original problem that the government was trying to solve.

Let’s say you live next door to an unhappy Muslim woman who wants a divorce but is not getting one, because she will lose custody of her children. It is none of your business, so you do not interfere. You are not a Muslim woman so you will not campaign for changes in the Sharia, nor fight to change the law of the land.

Have you hurt nobody?
This again, shows the confusion between what one ought to do and what one ought to have the right to do. Libertarianism does not answer the former question -- which is what Annie is asking here -- but answers the latter, saying that you ought to have right to speak out your mind, period.

Let’s say you set up a cola factory in a rural district where there’s only one source of fresh water. You set up shop, you pay your taxes, you put your little profit in the bank. It is true that there’s less water available for the villagers’ drinking, bathing, cooking, irrigation…

But nobody’s getting hurt, surely?
The reference is to the Plachimada controversy. I am not aware of the full details here, but I'll put in a point or two. The understanding of property rights evolves in the direction of whatever minimizes conflict between people. The very point of property rights is to avoid wasteful conflicts. Coca-cola had infringed on the property of the villagers near the plant by polluting their water; ergo, it violates their rights as per libertarianism. Also note that real libertarians (as opposed to strawmen who categorically accept all libertarian fundas), such as the Center for Civil Society have argued for community and ward-level ownership of water resources (pdf) for long.

Next, we have this:
Let’s say you’ve got a girlfriend in another city. With cheaper airlines, it is absolutely glorious being able to fly down every weekend… and let’s assume that you’ve been convinced, beyond your ability to doubt, that human self-indulgence has led to climate change. That every decade of our development leads to rivers receding, polar bears dying, Amazon rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, more frequent floods and hurricanes. The events that in the long history of planet earth used to occur at intervals of a thousand years, are now occurring at intervals of a hundred years, and by the time our kids grow up, will by happening every few years. There is more drought, more famine… and there’s cheaper air travel. Now, you just want to hold onto your girlfriend. You don’t want to hurt anybody.
The good old development vs environment debate! Firstly, in this case, libertarianism does not say that you must visit your girl-friend; you might not visit your girl-friend and still call yourself a steadfast libertarian.

Secondly, yes, almost everyone agrees that global warming is happening.I am a little more skeptical about the other scary scenarios about forest loss, species loss etc. The question is: how does one tackle these problems? Broadly and simplistically, we have two approaches: one is to have stringent regulations by all the governments of the world to prevent something that we are not sure we can even prevent; or two, to promote greater economic growth through more free trade that can lift millions out of poverty, and who can , with their money, improve their environments themselves or atleast protect themselves better from the disaster, if and when it strikes. As is probably obvious from the spin I put on that sentence ;-), I prefer the second solution.

She ends with this:
The argument that we need to stop, and think about all this ‘growth’ and where we’re headed. To think about reversing some of our damage, and to acknowledge the victims of our passivity, to acknowledge the need to make amends when we do cause damage. That argument, nobody wants to buy.
Totally agree. To me, freedom and greater choice are both more important than "growth". It just happens that "growth" also lifts a lot of people out of poverty, and richer people have greater control over their lives (loosely speakin) so I end up speaking in support of growth, even though what I am really arguing for is freedom - economic, social and political.


At 6:24 PM, June 08, 2006, Blogger Mukka said...

Every other person with a 'serious' blog on the net talks about libertarianism, but hardly anybody seemed to follow their own logic consistently. The whole concept had me quite confused for a while.

At 7:56 PM, June 08, 2006, Blogger WillOTheWisp said...

...what I am really arguing for is freedom - economic, social and political...

You argue for it and you get it? That's all?

Does it exist? Can it? Really?

How would you know what it means - if you haven't seen it so far? ( Pardon my presumptuousness here ) And if you haven't really experienced it - how could you possibly desire it?

And how could you know what it means for someone else?

At 2:36 AM, June 09, 2006, Anonymous Venu said...

You're right that there're lots of caricatures of libertarianism floating around the net. I was fed up.

Firstly, Hi! Thanks for visiting. How did you get here?

Regarding your comment, I wish you were more specific.

You argue for it and you get it? That's all?
I might not get it( you are talking about freedom, I presume). On the other hand, there are a lot of things that might happen or might not happen. You wont know unless you try.

Does it exist? Can it? Really?
Well, I think it exists. There's no limit to how skeptical you can be if you want to. E.g. Am I alive? Really? Is it possible that I am seeing the world around me?

How would you know what it means - if you haven't seen it so far? ( Pardon my presumptuousness here ) And if you haven't really experienced it - how could you possibly desire it?
I *have* experienced the effects of freedom; my job is definitely a result of greater economic freedom.
Our lives are definitely freer than those living in Mugabe's regime or North Korea, god forbid.

And how could you know what it means for someone else?
I dont know, ofcourse. I am merely trying to convince others about what I think will be a beneficial setup for everyone involved. Ultimately its upto the individuals to make up their minds and act for themselves.

At 3:39 PM, June 20, 2006, Blogger Lalbadshah said...

er.. the disadvantage of writing a very large post is, an average techie with a manager at his heels cant really go beyond the first two paragraphs without giving up.. as is my case :).

Anyway, I have a question:
Would a libertarian be more carefree abt the world or would he force his way to attain what is HIS concept of liberty? What I mean to say is, would he find that person in the parliment 600k from his place simply annoying and worth ignoring or would he be so annoyed that his liberty is being 'tulped' that he would go and kill that man to attain absolute liberty although in the process he has most certainly invaded upon the greatest of liberties - life, ala catch 22 types? If the subject of libertarianism does not cover this fundamental concept of boundaries and their annulment, it cannot really fall into a category of an ideal, can it?

If my questions are answered in the later paragraphs, let me know :), i'l read them.

At 1:48 PM, June 21, 2006, Anonymous Venu said...

No man, your questions are not answered later in the post. Let me try to answer them here.

Most libertarians think its ok to use force to protect your own liberty. A softer version of this is expressed by Karl Popper: "If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them". This is also why neolibertarians support the war on Iraq and still claim to be libertarians. (Personally I dont agree with Eric Raymond. I think he was totally off his rocker when he wrote that post I linked to above.)

But libertarianism is most relevant in deciding questions of public policy i.e. what a government should do and should not do (and we libertarians say that it should mostly do nothing, except downsizing itself). It is not very good at saying what individuals should and should not do. I, atleast, believe there are no fixed answers to questions of individual moral behaviour.

In your specific example, notwithstanding libertarian theory that says that it is right to use force in defense of liberty, most sensible libertarians would say - what's the point of killing one or two politicians, when it's almost certain that the same kind of unlibertarian policies would continue to be implemented by his successors? So like anyone else, libertarians just end up in debates on the internet forums or writing articles in newspapers, partly because thats the only practical way out and partly because the probabilistic benefits I get from doing something radical are far outweighed by the costs of such an action (including the opportunity cost). People are motivated by individual circumstance and incentives atleast as much as they are by their "principles" - and libertarians are no different.

P.S: I'll try and write shorter posts.

At 8:36 PM, June 22, 2006, Blogger Lalbadshah said...

That means that the liberty given to or rather taken by a libertarian is all relative and depends on the choice he makes, which he is free to make.
But the very concept of incentive takes us away from the liberty to make free choice. A rather vicious circle.

I guess civilization itself, along with its comforts, was the greatest incentive given to man when he agreed to sacrifice his liberty. To me, absolute liberty is non-existant in a civilized world. Moderate amounts? of course. But never absolute.

At 10:23 PM, June 22, 2006, Anonymous Venu said...

But the very concept of incentive takes us away from the liberty to make free choice.

Incentives dont destroy liberty. Atleast thats not how people understand liberty. You are said to be free so long as no one has coerced you to act against your volition. If we didnt react to the environment - which is but a set of incentives (positive/negative) - we wouldnt stay alive for long.

I guess civilization itself, along with its comforts, was the greatest incentive given to man when he agreed to sacrifice his liberty.

Am I sacrificing my liberty by entering into a contract with my employer that I will work for him in return for some amount of money? Not really. Rather, I am exercising my freedom to enter into contracts. Civilizations are built on the nature of free men to associate/trade with each other in order to better each other lives, and so long as there is no coercion, we need not say there is loss of liberty.

At 11:24 PM, July 06, 2006, Blogger kuffir said...

'.. two, to promote greater economic growth through more free trade that can lift millions out of poverty, and who can , with their money, improve their environments themselves or atleast protect themselves better from the disaster, if and when it strikes. As is probably obvious from the spin I put on that sentence ;-), I prefer the second solution. ...'

you know how that solution sounds, don't you?

perhaps, you haven't interpreted the problem in the right way?

very illuminating post, otherwise.

At 9:22 PM, July 07, 2006, Anonymous Venu said...

hi kuffir, i dont quite get you. maybe the sentence is a little naive and simplistic, but i dont see any problem with my overall point there. can you be more specific as to where you think i am wrong?

At 10:41 PM, July 07, 2006, Blogger kuffir said...

i'm all for the growth part..

but a disaster by definition is large, lethal, very probable and..most times imminent. this particular disaster (there are several less dramatic but as lethal varieties) is not viewed as imminent..or immediate by many, but it's a disaster nonetheless...but what you prescribe is a solution that doesn't consider its scale, effects and the ...probability of it happening are not given enough consideration, in my view.

wouldn't someone offering 'green' ideology be making more sense in the light of.. what you have to offer is perhaps not a solution at all?

At 10:23 AM, July 08, 2006, Anonymous Venu said...

Kuffir, there is a large variation in what the climate models predict. And whatever the disaster is, it is going to happen rather gradually (in human terms, atleast, if not geological terms) and not a sudden one. It is not like a sudden inundation of the earth or anything.

At 6:53 PM, July 11, 2006, Blogger kuffir said...


didn't i indicate that it would not unfold 'immediately'..?

At 3:13 AM, July 21, 2006, Blogger Sharath Rao said...

Brilliant Venu ! Just too good !

- and thanks for chiming in.

At 4:05 PM, July 21, 2006, Anonymous Venu said...

wow, thanks Sharath!


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