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.
I took a test, and it turns out I’m libertarian.[Emphasis hers.]
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…’
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.[Emphasis hers.]
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?
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.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.
Have you hurt nobody?
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…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.
But nobody’s getting hurt, surely?
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.