The Paradox of Libertarianism

by Jim Manzi

I’ve been attending a fascinating series of monthly dinners here in Washington, in which liberals and libertarians exchange ideas. One thing that has become clear to me through these dinners is that there are two strands of libertarian thought. In somewhat cartoon terms, one strand takes liberty to be a (or in extreme cases, the) fundamental human good in and of itself; the other takes liberty to be a means to the end of discovery of methods of social organization that create other benefits. I’ll call the first “liberty-as-goal” libertarianism and the second “liberty-as-means” libertarianism. Obviously, one can hold both of these beliefs simultaneously, and many people do. But in my observation, when pushed to develop a position on some difficult issue, most self-described libertarians reveal a temperament that leans strongly in one direction or the other. Again, in cartoon terms, I’d describe the first temperament as idealistic, deductive and theory-based, and the second as practical, inductive and experiment-based. To lay my cards on the table, I fall squarely into the second camp.

Liberty-as-means libertarianism sees the world in an evolutionary framework: societies evolve rules, norms, laws and so forth in order to adapt and survive in a complex and changing external environment. At a high level of abstraction, internal freedoms are necessary so that the society can learn (which requires trial-and-error learning because the external reality is believed to be too complex to be fully comprehended by any existing theory) and adapt (which is important because the external reality is changing). We need liberty, therefore, because we are so ignorant of what works in practical, material terms. But this raises what I think of as the paradox of libertarianism, or more precisely, the paradox of liberty-as-means libertarianism.

Start with a practical question: should prostitution be legal? The canonical libertarian position is that this is a consensual act between adults, and should be legal. The liberty-as-means position is far more tentative. We don’t know the overall effects of legalized prostitution. Some people have the theory that it will make people happier, provide incomes and stabilize marriages. Others think it will lead to personal degradation, female victimization and societal collapse. It is very hard to know which theory is right, or if there is only one right answer as opposed to different best answers for different social contexts, or if the relative predictive accuracy of various theories will change over time as the environment changes. What the liberty-as-means libertarian calls for is the freedom to experiment: let different localities try different things, and learn from this experience. In the best case this is literally consciousness learning from structured experiments, and in the weaker case it is only metaphorical learning, in that the localities with more adaptive sets of such rules will tend to win out in evolutionary competition over time.

This leads then to a call for “states as laboratories of democracy” federalism in matters of social policy; or in a more formal sense, a call for subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.

The characteristic error of contemporary conservatives in this regard has been a want of prudential judgment in trying to enforce too many social norms on a national basis. The characteristic error of liberty-as-goal libertarianism has been the parallel failure to appreciate that a national rule of “no restrictions on non-coercive behavior” (which, admittedly, is something of a cartoon) contravenes a primary rationale for libertarianism. What if social conservatives are right and the wheels really will come off society in the long run if we don’t legally restrict various sexual behaviors? What if left-wing economists are right and it is better to have aggressive zoning laws that prohibit big-box retailers? I think both are mistaken, but I might be wrong. What if I’m right for some people at this moment in time, but wrong for others, or wrong the same people ten years from now? The freedom to experiment needs to include freedom to experiment with different governmental (i.e., coercive) rules. So here we have the paradox: a liberty-as-means libertarian ought to argue, in some cases, for local autonomy to restrict some personal freedoms.

Now, obviously, there are limits to this. What if some states want to allow human chattel slavery? Well, we had a civil war to rule that out of bounds. Further, this imposes trade-offs on people who happen to live in some family, town or state that limits behavior in some way that they find odious, and must therefore move to some other location or be repressed. But this is a trade-off, not a tyranny.

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