Monday, January 16, 2012

More on the Sachs article, and a request to Steve Horwitz or whoever else

From Steve Horwitz at BHL. He writes:

"Over the weekend, my good friend Pete Boettke wondered why it was necessary for us to call ourselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” when the whole history of classical liberalism (from Smith forward) is full of thinkers who clearly cared about, for example, the condition of the least well-off. My response was that “yes, that might be true, but most observers of libertarianism don’t know that, and too many ‘true believers’ talk about libertarianism as if it’s all about self-interest to the exclusion of other values.” In response, Pete gave me the same eyeroll he’s been giving me for more than 25 years.

As if on cue, we get Jeff Sachs writing about libertarianism this weekend and saying:

'Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.'

Well Pete, there you go. Jeff Sachs is a smart guy, right? Look at what he thinks libertarianism is."

I really don't know what else to do with this mindset. I've been getting complaining about Sachs on here and an facebook. If the difference between those in the classical liberal tradition that call themselves "libertarian" and those in the classical liberal tradition that consider themselves non-libertarians is not making other priorities take a back seat to liberty then what the hell is it that defines libertarianism?

I get so much grief from some commenters about how I unfairly approach/define libertarianism (which I regularly clarify on here as refering to the minarchist brand and are honest attempts at productive discussion), but no suggestions for alternatives. Most of the alternative definitions that you do see are so broad that I would be considered a libertarian.

So here's a request to Steve Horwitz or anyone else. If you don't like Sachs's definition of libertarianism as a philosophy that prioritizes liberty over other classical liberal values, then what definition can you offer that:

1. Would satisfy libertarians generally, and
2. Wouldn't include people like me who are in the classical liberal tradition but are probably not who we would want to include in a definition of "libertarian"


  1. The LP has a definition here:

    "Libertarians believe in, and pursue, personal freedom while maintaining personal responsibility. The Libertarian Party itself serves a much larger pro-liberty community with the specific mission of electing Libertarians to public office.

    Libertarians strongly oppose any government interfering in their personal, family and business decisions. Essentially, we believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another."

    Wikipedia offers the following definition:

    "Libertarianism is a term describing philosophies which emphasize freedom, individual liberty, voluntary association and respect of property rights. Based on these, libertarians advocate a society with small or no government power."

    The problem is that Sachs claims liberty is emphasized "to the exclusion of all other values". The reason this is problematic is that someone could actually be a libertarian (as the BHL post notes) specifically *because* one values compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable. I would say that many or most libertarians value many or most these things very highly and they believe that they can be achieved through a less active government and more personal freedom. I sure do. Let's go one by one:

    Compassion: Is the government compassionate when it drops bombs on people? Is it compassionate when the government takes my money for its own purposes and deprives me of the opportunity to use that money for charitable purposes? I think not.

    Justice: Is the government just when it jails people for crimes such as drug use and prostitution which harm nobody but themselves? Is it just for the government to require expensive licenses for hair dressing, florists, and many other occupations? I think not.

    Civic Responsibility: The LP definition of libertarian specifically talks about responsibility. Libertarians tend to be responsible people. Most libertarians also don't advocate for breaking laws. Is he referring to libertarian opposition to the draft or other policies with which we disagree? If so, fine...I'm not a responsible citizen.

    Honesty: Does the large government we have promote honesty? I think the Obama DoJ recommending agencies claim documents requested via FOIA don't exist is pretty dishonest. Government is full of dishonesty. All you have to do is listen to a politician speak and you'll probably hear a lot of it. Libertarians are against fraud and most believe it is the role of the government to punish fraud.

    Decency: Are police abuse and wars of aggression decent? Is it decent for the government to tell me that I cannot smoke in my own business? I think not.

    Humility: Politicians seem to me to be some of the most egotistical people in existence. Libertarians are humble enough to admit that we don't know how to solve many problems from the top down. I don't think a libertarian government would have produced a graph of future unemployment levels with and without stimulus (even to show they believed it to be bad) as a policy selling point.

    Respect: Does the government respect me when it tells me who I can and cannot do business with, what I can and cannot consume, and where I can and cannot travel? I think not. Like Kant, libertarians advocate for the respect of all human beings as ends and not as means.

    Survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable: Do the poor, weak, and vulnerable have higher or lower survival rates in societies with higher GDP? Libertarians (and everyone, I would hope) want the world to be as prosperous as possible so that even the poorest citizens of tomorrow live like the wealthiest of today.

  2. I already told you on facebook. Your whole premise on comparison is flawed. You present libertarians as the kind of people who calculate a certain amount of liberty is worth "more" than a certain amount of social justice, equality, respect, etc.

    This. is. wrong.

    The true libertarians - and you can accuse me of a no true Scottsman - are the ones who understand that liberty is REQUIRED for any other value to be meaningful. If all of us are a slave, there can be no social justice, there can be no compassion, there can be no respect. You and Sachs and other lay non-libertarians are making a category mistake. This is complex philosophy, so I'm not being too hard on you for making that fallacy, but it is a fallacy nonetheless.

    An example: a foreigner would make a category mistake if he observed the various colleges, libraries, and administrative offices of Oxford, and then asked to be shown the university. The foreigner mistakes the university for another institution like those he has seen, when in fact it is something of another category altogether.

    1. re: "I already told you on facebook. Your whole premise on comparison is flawed. You present libertarians as the kind of people who calculate a certain amount of liberty is worth "more" than a certain amount of social justice, equality, respect, etc."

      I don't even understand what this is supposed to mean. How do you measure liberty, justice, equality, etc. and why do you think I am saying this?

      re: "The true libertarians - and you can accuse me of a no true Scottsman - are the ones who understand that liberty is REQUIRED for any other value to be meaningful."

      Right - Sachs's second type of libertarian. I don't know why we're still having this conversation or why it started in the first place.

      And I know what a category mistake is, Mattheus. I didn't make one. I'm not sure I'd call that "complex philosophy" either (although I'm sure certain applications can get complex).

      You are advocating a sort of consequentialism - one that specifically suggests that other values are contingent on liberty. I think in a lot of cases that's precisely right, but not necessarily, and in some cases the contingency runs in the other direction. But if I did agree with you on your particular brand of consequentialism, it would be a damn good reason for me to prioritize institutions that secure liberty, because it has the consequence of guaranteeing other values and consequences - just like Sachs points out.

      I really think you and Steve and others just want to be mad at Sachs.

    2. I don't know how one measures liberty, justice, or equality. But the premise that Sachs makes is that libertarians choose liberty to the exclusion of others. That implies a calculus.

      It is a category mistake to consider liberty as "just another value" to choose, to weigh, to decide upon. And yes, conservatives, liberals, and consequentialist libertarians are guilty of making this mistake. It's as if someone argued with Plato that "the Good" is just another value to consider alongside honor, wisdom, and justice. It's not, the Good is absolutely required for these other values to have any meaning. Again though, this is just for ethical libertarians. I was rushing when I wrote above.

      Your mistake is thinking that government secures liberty, then. That is certainly not a complex argument.

  3. I went to go read Bob's blog and I realized my mistake. What I wrote above fits for denotological libertarians.

    As far as consequentialist libertarians go, they may fit the Sachs analysis where liberty is only a means or a value to be weighed amongst competing values, with liberty coming on top. And they may, as Steve Horwitz concedes, only believe this because they consider liberty to be the prime driver of all other values (so I'm still mostly right above). I guess I shouldn't be so dogmatic about capital-L Libertarians because I consider myself one, while at the same time finding the Sachs article full of frankly, bullshit.

    I think we need a more descriptive phrase for ethical libertarians - a la Rothbard, Rand, Hoppe, Murphy, Block, Woods - versus the so-called utilitarian libertarians - a la Mises, Hayek, Horwitz, Nozick, Friedman. The interesting point to consider though is that Group A is always a part of Group B, the reverse is not true. In other words, the ethical libertarians consider liberty to be the prime driver of the other values AS WELL AS being a priori good. Group B simply considers liberty to give good consequences.


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