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Libertarianism and Social Interaction

Via David Henderson, I came upon this essay by John Edward Terrell in the New York Times criticizing libertarians and Tea Party types for favoring individualism.  What a morass of confusion!

To begin with, Terrell conflates (1) the appropriateness of respecting individual rights, (2) the moral question, how we should act, and (3) the psychological question, how we are likely to act.  He seems to believe that libertarians believe that we should have absolute individual rights, that it is moral to be selfish, and that we are likely to be so.

These are old mistakes, but it is sad how often libertarianism is rejected for these mistaken reasons.

1. First, it is true that libertarians believe that people should have individual rights, but it is not because our actions have no effect on other people. Libertarians recognize that we are interconnected and argue that our mode of interaction should not be through coercion but through voluntary associations.  Social interactions work better through voluntary associations.

Goods and services are better provided through a competitive market than through monopoly government provision.  Similarly, in a free society, as de Tocqueville saw, people form voluntary associations to serve community ends and these associations generally work better than government does through coercion.    

Even if Terrell disagrees about whether private or government organization works better, the point is that he misunderstands the other side’s argument.

2. Nor do libertarians believe that humans should always be selfish. There are a range of views, but most libertarians believe that it is morally valuable to contribute resources and services to other people. Charitable organizations are one of those Tocquevillian voluntary associations.  Many libertarians note that large government welfare states crowd out charitable behavior – look at Europe.  Thus, if one wants other regarding people, one should be against a welfare state.

3. Finally, forcing other people to contribute to our moral goals is hardly the stuff of charity. Giving one’s own time and money is altruistic. Forcing others to give to our goals – whether it turns out to be justified or not – is not charitable.  It is the exercise of power.

Reader Discussion

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on December 06, 2014 at 09:39:09 am

Professor Rappaport's defense of Libertarianism would be as laudable as de Tocqueville's had it been placed in de Tocqueville's world. Scale and global economic inequality are the enemy of Libertarianism. As a result it will never adequately deal with the poor in a egalitarian manner.

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David Lowa
on December 06, 2014 at 10:05:36 am

"He seems to believe that libertarians believe that we should have absolute individual rights, that it is moral to be selfish, and that we are likely to be so.

These are old mistakes, but it is sad how often libertarianism is rejected for these mistaken reasons."

I disagree that these are "old mistakes." They are really a conscious misrepresentation, that with constant repetition, is intended to immediately conjure up a negative response to the mention of individualism or libertarianism. "Oh no, you misunderstand," is not a response that will ever successfully overcome this well conditioned negative reaction. Let's take a lesson from Alinsky and make them live by their own rules. For example, Jonathon Gruber made a fortune, first by assisting in the design of complex and misleading ACA legislation, lying about its true impact, and then cashing in with the consulting fees from states attempting to implement their exchanges. That's real greed from a real con artist. Let's start talking about that.

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Tom Bowler
on December 07, 2014 at 10:24:58 am

These are old mistakes, but it is sad how often libertarianism is rejected for these mistaken reasons.

Regrettably, the NYT author declines to cite specific libertarian or Tea Party member as articulating the positions he then rebuts. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could; different people give different meaning to “libertarian” or “Tea Party.”

Goods and services are better provided through a competitive market than through monopoly government provision.

So libertarians reject laissez-faire policies in favor of the panoply of government interventions that make markets more competitive (antitrust laws; disclosure laws; banking regulations; uniform currency; monitoring of weights and measures; etc.)? Again, I suspect there is more than one definition of libertarian at play here.

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nobody.really
on December 07, 2014 at 10:26:47 am

[I]n a free society, as de Tocqueville saw, people form voluntary associations to serve community ends….

Seriously? Do tell -- what did de Tocqueville say about how well these societies served the community ends of the slaves? Or women? Or Native Americans? Or people who practices a minority faith? Or people with disabilities? Or the LGBT? Or…? As Père Henri-Dominique Lacordaire remarked, “Between the weak and the strong, between the rich and the poor, between the master and the servant, it is freedom which oppresses and the law which sets free.”

Which is not to say de Tocqueville was wrong, or that he was naïve to remark upon the beauty of social voluntary social interactions among empowered equals. And if he had cared to, he likely could have observed similar voluntary social interactions among the empowered peoples of Europe – mainly nobles. The American Experiment has succeeded in extending power down the social hierarchy – to produce a larger class of nobles -- and to the extent it has succeeded, it has produced the salutary results de Tocqueville observed. Deregulation has been one manner in which this has succeeded, but not the sole manner. De Tocqueville was able to observe voluntary interactions among people empowered by the ownership of land forcibly appropriated from others.

And de Tocqueville did not have occasion to review the emerging evidence that voluntary social interactions occur primarily among homogeneous groups. The greater the diversity – racial, economic, cultural, whathaveyou – the less social trust arises. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam observed that since the 1950s, Americans had grown less willing to form and join voluntary social groups. And in E Pluribus Unum, Putnum offered a partial explanation: America has grown more diverse. Even when controlling for income inequality, crime rates, etc., greater diversity is associated with less communal trust.

Lowered trust in areas with high diversity is also associated with:

• Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
• Less likelihood of working on a community project.
• Less likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
• Fewer close friends and confidants.
• Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
• Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in one's own influence.
• Lower frequency of registering to vote – though more interest and knowledge about politics, and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
• Higher political advocacy, but lower expectations that it will bring about a desirable result.
• More time spent watching television and more agreement that "television is my most important form of entertainment."
• Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.

In diverse communities, people “hunker down … like turtles.” Putnam didn’t discover that diversity would lead me to distrust people who seemed different than myself; he discovered that diversity would lead me to distrust everybody.

Putnam didn’t specifically study the rise of libertarianism and the Tea Party. Perhaps he thought it would simply be redundant?

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nobody.really
on December 07, 2014 at 10:33:38 am

Nor do libertarians believe that humans should always be selfish. There are a range of views….

Indeed – which makes it challenging to maintain that Terrell is wrong, rather than simply speaking about one part of the range of views.

[M]ost libertarians believe that it is morally valuable to contribute resources and services to other people. Charitable organizations are one of those Tocquevillian voluntary associations.

Yeah; and as noted above, greater social diversity depresses participation in these kinds of organization, and depresses charitable giving generally.

2. …Many libertarians note that large government welfare states crowd out charitable behavior – look at Europe. Thus, if one wants other regarding people, one should be against a welfare state.

3. Finally, forcing other people to contribute to our moral goals is hardly the stuff of charity. Giving one’s own time and money is altruistic. Forcing others to give to our goals – whether it turns out to be justified or not – is not charitable.

It is unclear to me that Terrell’s focus is on creating other-regarding people, or defining charity, or characterizing charity as virtuous. Rather, I understand him to advocate using the resources created in a society for the maintenance of that society (including society’s members).

Admittedly, Tarrell’s argument leaves open the question of what specific goals to pursue, and the best strategies to pursue them. Do social programs achieve less than a policy of relying on private charity? Is the interest of liberty better served by tight social conventions mandating service to aging parents, say, or by Social Security? What consequences do these different policies have for reproduction? And are liberty concerns overrated? That is, do government programs enable recipients to withdraw from liberty-stifling, yet growth-inducing, social interaction? If your local church demands that you conform to its practices as a condition of receiving charity, well, maybe some of those practices are adaptive….

But we never reach these questions if we start with an ideological commitment to the idea that private actions is always and everywhere more effectual than government actions.

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nobody.really
on December 07, 2014 at 14:28:20 pm

Nobody:

Now i know why you go by the moniker nobody - because you distrust everybody - thus *nobody* is trustworthy. (Just kidding).

Perhaps, it is not the diversity of color, wealth or cuisine, etc that is the cause of the problems you cite above; I would look to a diversity of definitions: "what is the good life" - what is just?, etc etc. There is no longer a common ethos that both impels good behavior and constrains excessive behavior. even the nobles of old and their *attached* peasantry did share a common ethos - ain't saying we go back there, mind ya, but....

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gabe
on December 07, 2014 at 14:56:41 pm

Oh, I agree. And this gives a perspective on libertarianism:

Once upon a time we had fewer laws because our neighbors thought and behaved as we did. We didn't have more freedom. But our constraints came in the form of cultural norms, not laws.

Today we greater diversity -- including, as gabe notes, diversity of norms. Thus to achieve much of the same level of social cohesion as in bygone days, we need more laws.

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nobody.really
on December 08, 2014 at 18:51:41 pm

well, that is ONE approach - more laws.
However, that tack seems to argue against continued diversity as the effect (and the intent?) of laws is to make uniform citizen response / behavior / expectations.
Given that the scurrilous creatures that have burrowed into the crevices of government will be intent on fostering means / methods to advance or increase the likelihood of attaining THEIR *motivational aspirations* it seems likely that diversity will go the way of the dodo bird - and i for one miss dodoes (sp/) very much.

An alternative is somewhat more Burkean - let the "common mind" work it out - prescription rather than proscription, good sir!

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gabe

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