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No, But Classical Liberalism Can

Can libertarianism be a governing philosophy? This is an excellent question, in both senses that Michael C. Munger identifies and explores in his Liberty Forum essay. I am largely in agreement with Munger’s conclusions, for reasons I give below. But I also think his argument is at times unclear and ambiguous in unfortunate ways. That lack of clarity could be remedied by drawing a sharper distinction between libertarianism and classical liberalism, which gives rise to a third sense of the question: Assuming that libertarian principles can support limited government, is a libertarian psychology/anthropology sufficiently nuanced to provide the unique kind of prudence that governing requires?

Three Points of Agreement

I am sympathetic to most of what Mr. Munger says. First, he rightly questions the feasibility, if not the validity, of the non-aggression axiom, especially if it is taken as “an absolute categorical moral principle.” The illustration he borrows from Matt Zwolinski is not quite to the point: Entering a person’s property against that person’s will (trespassing) is at least one step removed from aggression against “self-ownership” (assault and battery). To work, that step would have to extend the norms governing self-ownership to the norms governing private property, say, by John Locke’s labor theory of ownership or Robert Nozick’s theory of entitlement. Here some thoughtful libertarians, sensitive to the kind of dilemma Zwolinski raises, have seen it fit to add something like Eric Mack’s “self-ownership proviso.”

A more apt illustration might have been Murray Rothbard’s extension of the non-aggression axiom to children, who may not be coercively restrained by their parents even, presumably, to prevent them from running into a busy street. In any case, if self-identifying libertarians are not prepared to swallow the consequences of the absolutist interpretation of the non-aggression axiom, then they should be looking for a more plausible public philosophy. As I suggest below, that philosophy is classical liberalism.

I also agree with Munger’s criticisms of contract theory, though I think perhaps he (and/or Anthony de Jasay) misses the subtlety of Hobbes’ own argument for governmental authority, which avoids the inconsistencies he (and/or Jasay) attributes to it. (“Right” for Hobbes is nothing more than the rational calculation of egoists, and the legitimacy of the sovereign rests not on actual consent, but on his power to preserve peace.)

One might add to the problems Munger identifies in contract theory: Whose consent is required (infants? toddlers? adolescents?), when is it required (just once? at frequent intervals?) and when, if ever, may it be withdrawn? Does the consent have be actual, or can it be tacit? If the former, then no existing government has, or has ever had, the unanimous consent of all of its members, and all existing governments are illegitimate. But if tacit consent suffices, how is it determined? Is acquiescing to pay taxes because I fear the IRS any different from paying the highway robber so he doesn’t beat me? In the end, if consent theory is true, then the most “government” the argument will allow is Nozick’s dominant protective agency.

Finally, I agree with Munger that “a limited government is desirable, even necessary, and that it is possible,” and therefore that the most pressing practical challenge is not figuring out how to eliminate government, but (if you will) how de-liminate government; that is, how do we return government to its proper limits and keep it there?

What Is Libertarianism?

Although I am largely in agreement with Munger, I think his response to the question might be strengthened by more clarity and better distinctions. He frames his essay as a disagreement within libertarianism between what he calls “destinationalists” and “directionalists.” Not only are these terms hard on the ear, they don’t have any obvious connection with the thing they are supposed to denote.

The “destinationalists” seem to be anarchists (or anarcho-capitalists). They hold that the only legitimate use of coercion is to prevent coercion, and that no one (especially no government) may have a legitimate monopoly on the use of coercion. Why are they called “destinationalists”? The “directionalists,” on the other hand, seem to be some version of classical liberals. They hold “that any policy action that increases the liberty and welfare of individuals is an improvement, and should be supported by libertarians, even if the policy itself violates either the self-ownership principle or the non-aggression principle.” Why are they called “directionalists”?

Early in his essay Munger suggests the reason for his infelicitous neologisms: “There are two main paths to deriving libertarian principles, destinations and directions.” According to this line of argument, they share the same view of government but merely differ on the legitimate means (“paths”) of getting there. Destinationalists oppose any policy that “itself violates either the self-ownership principle or the non-aggression principle,” whereas directionalists are willing to violate these principles if doing so moves things in the direction of libertarianism. Framed this way, what Munger seems to be saying is that the difference between the two is that directionalists condone using immoral means for moral ends.

In other words, Munger’s directionalists are just a bit more Machiavellian, less idealistic or principled, than their destinationalist rivals. If this what he is saying, he should have been more clear about it, since on this principle I, and probably many others, are in full agreement with the destinationalists: It is never right, or necessary, to do a wrong.

In other places, however, Munger also seems to suggest that the difference between the two is not simply about the best means to the same end; it is really a difference of ends. Directionalists, he writes, are “minarchists, who believe that a limited government is desirable [Note: Not an unfortunate evil!], even necessary, and also that it is possible.” And in his conclusion he expresses his own view “that libertarianism is, and in fact should be, a philosophy of governing that is robust and useful.” On this reading, it would not have to be the case that directionalists approve of using immoral means to moral ends. Perhaps the public philosophy of directionalism does not endorse the destinationalists’ self-ownership and non-aggression axioms.

In any case, if the disagreement between Munger’s destinationalists and directionalists is really about two competing public philosophies of government, as I suspect it is, it would be have been good for him to make this clear at the outset and to make it the focus of his essay. For unless and until one makes clear what libertarianism is, one cannot really answer the question “Can Libertarianism Be a Governing Philosophy?” And although Munger writes in his conclusion that “It is a coherent and useful government philosophy,” it is far from clear what “It” he refers to. Earlier in the piece he seems to identify himself with “minarchism,” but then later he professes a “philosophy of government that is robust and useful.” Minarchism is perhaps useful; robust it is not.

A Better Taxonomy

I propose an alternative, more traditional taxonomy to which all parties might agree, and which will prevent them from wasting time talking past each other. As I see it, Liberalism (with a capital L) is not a monolithic philosophy, but a family of at least four public philosophies. What all four share in common are two things: the separation of political authority from civil society (especially religion, but also the family, economic activities and associations, fraternal associations, etc.); and the subordination of political authority to civil society. These liberalisms  differ as to the proper scope and limits of governmental power. (Importantly, they also differ in how they arrive at their respective understandings, but I cannot explore this here.)

First in the family, at one end of the spectrum, are anarchists (or “rational anarchists” or “anarcho-capitalists”), who view government as both unnecessary and unjust. Rothbard is perhaps the most famous defender of this view.

Next to the anarchists are minarchists, who think government is a regretful necessity, but only to prevent coercion. Robert Nozick is the most famous defender of this view.

Further along the spectrum are classical liberals, who regard government as necessary not only to prevent coercion, but also to provide a number of public goods. The most famous classical liberal is probably Adam Smith.

Finally (and generously, since I do have my doubts), I include in the family of Liberalism modern liberals, or progressives, who hold that the government’s task of preventing coercion should extend to the disparate power relations (especially economic, but also sexual, ethnic, and racial power relations) within civil society. John Rawls is the leading advocate for this view.

Now, in which of these four families ought we place “libertarianism”? We can safely eliminate the fourth, modern liberalism. I propose that we also eliminate the third, classical liberalism, for reasons I will give in a moment. Personally, I’m happy to let minarchists and anarchists fight it out between themselves for the title—though for my money, minarchism has a better claim to it and anarchism, eager as it is for purity, clarity, and consistency, doesn’t lose much in letting it go.

Libertarianism Versus Classical Liberalism

The distinction I would want to fight for is between libertarianism (anarchist or minarchist) and classical liberalism. This distinction is critical because classical liberalism does have the capacity to offer a coherent, robust, and effective limited governing philosophy (and not merely a more pragmatic path to libertarianism), whereas libertarianism does not. And I suspect that libertarians often popularly but misleadingly conflate libertarianism and classical liberalism for rhetorical advantage.

Thus libertarians will sometimes claim thinkers like Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Hayek, or James Buchanan as libertarians, when in fact none of these thinkers was a minarchist, let alone an anarchist. They were not even pragmatic or confused or unprincipled minarchists. They were all classical liberals. This means, among other things, that they realized that there are certain exigencies in human nature that make government necessary, and that limited government is a difficult historical achievement which requires both a well-designed constitutional order and a particular political and moral culture. They defended things that libertarians abhor—like publicly funded education, roads, parks and theaters, and assistance to the poor—and they fretted about ways in which the free market might undermine the economic and moral conditions for liberty.

In The Constitution of Liberty (1960), F.A. Hayek makes clear that these things are more than the result of merely pragmatic accommodations—that they reflect a distinctive and principled philosophy of government. According to Hayek:

Not Locke, nor Hume, nor Smith, nor Burke, could ever have argued, as Bentham did [and libertarians do], that “every law is an evil for every law is an infraction of liberty.” Their argument was never a complete laissez faire argument, which, as the very words show, is also part of the French rationalist tradition and in its literal sense was never defended by any of the English classical economists. They knew better than most of their later critics that it was not some sort of magic but the evolution of “well-constructed institutions,” where the “rules and principles of contending interests and compromised advantages” would be reconciled, that had successfully channeled individual efforts to socially beneficial aims. In fact, their argument was never antistate as such, or anarchistic [as libertarian arguments are], which is the logical outcome of the laissez faire doctrine; it was an argument that accounted both for the proper functions of the state and for the limits of state action.

As this passage suggests, classical liberals differ from libertarians not only on “the proper functions of the state and the limits of state action”; they also differ on what the state is. Libertarians tend to view government exclusively in terms of economic exchange, in which private individuals bargain for their private advantage from the public trough made available by the coercive power of the state. They have a difficult time accounting for the differences between ordinary market bargaining, which uses the language of individual wants and private goods, and state bargaining, which uses the language of justice and the common good.

This could be why a common libertarian response to political language is cynicism: Political language is the fraudulent coin that makes the grand swindle of government possible. But what if political language expresses genuinely political concerns that are built into human nature? Would not the failure to understand and provide for this be a major, even a fatal oversight? Would it not itself prevent libertarianism from being a “governing philosophy”?

In contrast to libertarians, classical liberals take seriously—­­­though not without some guarded skepticism—the natural language of politics. Thus they are able and willing to use that language to promote liberty and human flourishing.

While I could cite many examples to illustrate this point, I will conclude here with the most unlikely one: James Buchanan, the founder of public choice economics. In a remarkable essay entitled “Is Public Choice Immoral? The Case for the ‘Noble’ Lie,” which he co-wrote with Geoffrey Brennan in 1988, Buchanan acknowledged that the assumptions of public choice economics, if actually believed and acted upon by politicians and ordinary citizens, might well make everyone worse off. “We should recognize that the ‘myths of democracy,’ ” wrote Buchanan and Brennan, “may be essential to the maintenance of an underlying popular consent of the citizenry to be governed, in the absence of which no tolerable stable political order is possible.”

Myth or not (I leave this to the reader to decide), democratic governing requires more knowledge of human nature than libertarianism affords.

Reader Discussion

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on March 06, 2018 at 16:52:08 pm

A thoughtful essay. I believe in limited government. I guess that makes me a classical liberal. But the problem with limited government is that, at some point, it inevitably leads to unlimited government, or what one philosopher called "totalitarian democracy." How do we keep small government from eventually becoming a leviathan? je ne sais pas. Gregory Bresiger

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gregory bresiger
on March 26, 2018 at 02:34:33 am

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.