The Pros and Cons of Liberty
By Arnold Kling
Arguments for Liberty1 is a collection of essays on libertarianism, with each author arguing from a different ethical framework. One author employs utilitarianism, one employs virtue ethics, one employs natural rights, and so on. The book’s conceit is that regardless of one’s basic moral philosophy, the conclusion favors liberty.
The authors provide clear and insightful explanations of the thinking of Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Ayn Rand, John Rawls, Robert Nozick and others. Their writing is clear and free of academic jargon. Arguments would make an excellent book of supplemental readings for a course in political philosophy. Such a course could use another supplement, consisting of readings of philosophers arguing for non-libertarian ideas. I will suggest a couple later in this essay.
In Arguments, each author has two tasks. One task is to explain and defend his or her preferred ethical framework. The second task is to show that the ethical framework implies a libertarian point of view.
Christopher Freiman makes the utilitarian case for liberty. His discussion of liberty largely focuses on economic liberty, including,
… robust private property rights, freedom of exchange, and freedom of contract; the central place of markets in the production and distribution of goods; and the minimization of forceful interference in people’s private choices. (page 16)
The great virtue of the market, from a utilitarian perspective, is that it leads us to promote the happiness of others without demanding that we prioritize their happiness or even know how to make them happy. No institution is perfect, but the market does the best job of extracting social benefits from people’s limited supply of impartiality and information. (page 47)
The utilitarian principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” has problems, as other authors point out. If killing me and harvesting my organs for transplants to others is the way to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, then utilitarianism would appear to justify doing so. To avoid this, utilitarians must appeal to a different level of argument. They might say that if everyone lived under the threat of being killed for organ harvesting, then most people would be unhappy, so therefore a rule against organ harvesting would be utilitarian.
This so-called rule utilitarianism is similar to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, as expounded in the chapter by Jason Kuznicki. Kant bids that we act as if our choice would be a universal law of nature. In the organ harvesting example, if it became a universal law of nature that people could be killed in order to harvest their organs, this would lead to terrible fear and strife.
The organ harvesting example is an illustration of a person being used as a means to the end of others. If I do not want to do something, but others make me do it in order to serve their ends, then I am being used as a means. Kant believed that the principle of treating others as ends rather than as means was embedded in the categorical imperative. Kuznicki says that this argues against state power, because,
… states use people merely as tools. Quite possibly they are incapable of doing otherwise. To speak more precisely, the agents of states set goals that they wish to attain, and they compel citizens to try to attain them, the citizens’ dignity and autonomy notwithstanding. (page 102)
The argument that people ought not to be treated as means to the ends of others connects to the philosophy of natural rights, which is the subject of the essay by Eric Mack. He argues that,
… all individuals have natural rights not to be interfered with in their (noninterfering) pursuit of personal well-being. More specifically yet, all individuals have natural rights of self-ownership, natural rights to acquire and exercise discretionary control over extrapersonal objects, and natural rights to the fulfillment of agreements made with them. (page 85)
For many people, this raises the question of who will protect these natural rights. Although libertarian philosophers may rail against the state, most people (including quite a few libertarians) cannot see how these rights would be protected in the absence of a state. However, even if in theory a government ought to protect natural rights, a government in practice may discard the notion of natural rights, or it may alter Mack’s definition of natural rights beyond recognition.
In contemporary America, the public seems to acquiesce to the government’s invasion of natural rights. How can one change people’s minds?
Michael Huemer would try to change people’s minds by appealing to intuition. His “intuitionism” means that we build up ethical theories from examples. Huemer says,
The way human cognition normally works is that we come to know concrete, specific things first, and general, abstract things later—if at all… in accepting some general account of what justice is, one must first know in many individual cases what is a just or unjust action. (page 264)
Huemer’s primary intuition for liberty is that if we would be offended by a fellow citizen’s interference with our liberty, then we should be just as offended if the same action were undertaken by an agent of the state. He writes,
Imagine that I live in a village that has some poor people who are not being adequately cared for. Suppose I go around the village demanding contributions for a charity that I run to aid the poor. If anyone refuses to contribute, I kidnap them at gunpoint and lock them in a cage for an extended period. What is the moral status of my behavior?
… my behavior in that scenario seems analogous to that of a government collecting funds for social welfare programs through taxation. (page 268)
I have never found this argument convincing.2 When it comes to intuition, nearly everyone differentiates between a charity vigilante and the institutions of government. We accept the latter in order to live in peace with one another.
Kant believed that property rights typically arose gradually, out of repeated claims, counterclaims, adjudication, and reaffirmations, rather than from any one definitive act of settlement or assignment, whether by the state or by individuals… legitimacy can arise over time. Given the initially arbitrary (and often criminal) origin of nearly all title to land, there is no other way forward in any case. We must either concede that all the world is stolen, after which we must establish an institution to redistribute everything, or we admit that past errors are better corrected gradually. (pages 110-111)
“Consulting our intuition does not lead one to reject government, any more than it leads one to reject property rights.”
In the real world, property rights are impure. In my view, the same holds true for government institutions. They have arisen gradually, from a process that involved many disputes, temporary settlements, and reaffirmations. It is not absurd, as Huemer would have it, that there exists a set of institutions within which individuals may extract charity by force, even though we would not allow individuals acting outside of those institutions to do so. The institutions of police, legislatures, and courts are, like property rights, emergent phenomena. Consulting our intuition does not lead one to reject government, any more than it leads one to reject property rights.
Coming after the chapters on utilitarianism, natural rights, and other single-minded ethical frameworks that each can be made to sound correct, it is not surprising that Jason Brennan’s final chapter on “moral pluralism” seems the most congenial. He argues against the single-minded ethical frameworks. Instead, Brennan says that all of us have what he calls “mid-level” moral principles, including utilitarian principles, the principle of treating people as ends rather than as means, and other principles. Ethical quandaries result from conflicts among these principles, and they cannot be resolved by any single over-riding principle. Says Brennan,
The idea behind methodological moral pluralism is that although we might disagree about fundamental moral theories, we probably can each agree to a shared set of mid-level moral principles. In trying to resolve debates about what to do here and now, we should try to appeal to these more obvious mid-level principles rather than some less obvious fundamental theory. (page 325)
This sort of moral pluralism,
… doesn’t offer a 60-second defense of libertarianism—or any other political philosophy for that matter. But that’s not a bad thing. It would be rather surprising if we could derive a political philosophy directly out of a basic moral theory, without having to first study economics and political science to learn how institutions actually function… we’ll need to understand robust political economy to make a final determination about what justice requires. (page 337)
After reading this book, I could not help pondering why it is that libertarianism does not hold sway among most philosophers or with the general public. My answer is that people rely on what I call small-community intuitionism.
Within a family or a small community, egalitarian principles and mutual obligations are very salient. Philosophers who argue for non-libertarian political philosophy will tend to appeal to the intuition that is based on society at a small scale.
For example, George Lakoff has offered a theory of society that is based on the model of a family.3 He argues that conservatives think in terms of a “strict-father morality,” which is focused on punishing wrong-doing and putting the responsibility for an individual’s well-being on that individual, rather than on the community. He says that the alternative is “nurturant parent” morality, which is focused on giving everyone the means to thrive. He argues that families with the “nurturant parent” mindset produce children who are happier and more robust, and he says that by analogy a government that operates with a “nurturant parent” mindset will be better for its citizens.
Another example of small-community intuition is the camping-trip analogy of socialist philosopher G.A. Cohen. Elsewhere, I have pointed out that this is a misleading way to think about an economy, when in fact the patterns of trade are much more complex.4
Earlier, I cited Christopher Freiman saying that we have neither the incentive nor the knowledge to operate in each other’s interests. His point is counterintuitive if one thinks in terms of a small community. However, it is clearly correct once we move beyond the scale of a family or a small village. As I see it, an important task of the libertarian is to point out that the size and complexity of societies renders small-community intuition unfit as a basis for political philosophy.
Aaron Ross Powell and Grant Babcock, eds., Arguments for Liberty. Cato Institute, 2017.
See “Michael Huemer’s Challenge to the Legitimacy of Government”, by Arnold Kling. Library of Economics and Liberty, Jan. 29, 2013.
George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.
“Camping-trip Economics vs. Woolen-Coat Economics,” by Arnold Kling. Library of Economics and Liberty, Feb. 2, 2015. See also my book, Specialization and Trade.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.