Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Part III


This is a brief excerpt of Part III of a nine-part work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .

This is where I where I enter a debate that splits libertarianism into two camps: fundamentalists and consequentialists. Fundamentalists (or "natural right") libertarians say that humans inherently possess the right of liberty. Consequentialists say that humans ought to enjoy liberty because, through liberty, humans are happier and more prosperous than they would be in its absence. In spite of this rather fundamental split, all libertarians agree that it is better to live in liberty than not....

I would like to be able to say, with fundamentalist libertarians, that liberty is an innate human right -- and the only innate right. But that would be nothing more than an assertion, however cleverly I might clothe it in the language of philosophy.

I would like to be able to say that liberty is a paramount human instinct, honed through eons of human existence and experience. But we are surrounded by too much evidence to the contrary, both in recorded and natural history. The social and intellectual evolution of humankind has led us to a mixed bag of rights, acquired politically through cooperation and conflict resolution, often predating the creation of governments and the empowerment of states. The notion that we ought to enjoy the negative right of liberty is there among our instincts, of course, but it is at war with the positive right of privilege -- the notion that we are "owed something" beyond what we earn (through voluntary exchange) for the use of our land, labor, or capital. Liberty is also at war with our instincts for control, aggression, and instant gratification.

I do not mean that the social and intellectual evolution of humankind is right -- merely that it is what it is. Libertarians must accept this and learn to work with the grain of humanity, rather than against it. There is no profit in simply asserting the inherent wrongness of laws and government actions that undermine liberty. Nor is there much profit in arguing the unconstitutionality of illiberal laws and government actions; it is obvious that appeals to the Constitution will be of little avail unless and until we have a Supreme Court that abides wholeheartedly by the Constitution.

There can be much profit in demonstrating, logically and factually, how illiberal laws and government actions make people worse off -- often the same people who are supposed to benefit from those laws -- and in offering superior alternatives. In other words, consequentialist libertarianism can make real gains for liberty by appealing successfully to self-interest. But self-interest must be seduced by reason (Part IV) and bribed by the promise of greater rewards (Part V).

Click here for the full text of Part III.