Questioning Some Libertarian Sacred Cows

For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better Information, or fuller Consideration, to change opinions even on important Subjects,
which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.
                            - Benjamin Franklin, Founding father of the United States

There are a number of positions widely held by libertarians, though not universally so, with which I have come to disagree. These include the following.

One of Ayn Rand's exhortations, one widely adopted by libertarians and the conservative right, and which I used to agree with, is to never fail to pass moral judgment on philosophical opponents. They are not just opponents, they are enemies. They are not just mistaken. They are wilfully evil.

The remnants of this attitude show up in today's strident conservative commentators, not to mention political attack ads. They have lowered the quality of political discourse to anti-intellectual sloganism and extravagant hyperbole.

This is the first major departure I have taken from the standard libertarian position

  • I believe most people, and most politicians, in a democratic society, are men of good will who have the best interests of the country at heart and are trying to do what they believe to be the right thing. Ad hominem attacks on people, politicians or otherwise, as stupid, evil, wannabe dictators, etc. is simply wrong-headed. In order to present libertarian ideals effectively, one must start from a position of good will towards others.

A second departure is on the nature of aggression. There is a presupposition on the part of some libertarians that property rights are absolute and that economic power is benign.  Perhaps the most egregious example that shows the fallacy of this position is the flagpole argument which has been seriously promoted by some prominent libertarians.

The example is given of a person accidentally falling off a 25 floor apartment building and saving himself by catching on to a flagpole on the fifteenth floor. The owner of the apartment comes to the window and says, "Get the hell off my flagpole. It's private property." It is argued that the flagpole hanger is not only obliged to let go, thus falling to his death, but that the flagpole's owner has the right to use deadly force to get the hanger-on to let go should he refuse. The argument is that this is a litmus test of your libertarianism. If you were the unfortunate fellow hanging on to the pole and were told to get off, as a good libertarian you should respect the pole owner's property rights and let go.

By this argument, a shop keeper would be justified in using deadly force against a kid who swipes a chocolate bar. This is a mistaken view, in my opinion. Property rights, while important, must be viewed in context. So that is my second point of departure.

  • Property rights are important but not absolute. They must be viewed in context. The actions taken to defend one's property must be commensurate with the threat made. It is not carte blanche to use deadly force, though in some cases deadly force may be justified (if the trespasser is armed and poses a physical threat).

Next I have reassessed the conflict between rationalism and empiricism. Many libertarians take a rationalist a priori approach to ethics and politics. I used to be a thorough-going rationalist but now find myself firmly in the empiricist camp. Which is my third point of departure.

  • Scientific method trumps rationalism. While there is certainly room for both, I believe that in trying to persuade others of libertarian ideals, empirical demonstration of truths is essential. Too often libertarians rely on a priori arguments. Arguments that are only as good as their premises. If a philosophical opponent rejects your premises, your argument is dead in the water. It is better to show your positions are practical and workable.

Fourthly, libertarians tend to discount the value of democracy. From a rationalist perspective, democracy has nothing in its favour. It is the advocacy of might makes right. But empirically, as Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angel of Our Natures: Why Violence Has Declined, democracy has played a significant role in diminishing violence between states as well as violence within states. While I reject democracy as a philosophical ideal, I think it is indispensable as a methodology for achieving peaceful change. So my fourth point of departure is:

  • Democracy is beneficial and maybe even essential in achieving non-violent change. Since the basis of libertarianism is non-violence, this is not a trivial point. When it comes to achieving a libertarian society, rational persuasion and achieving change through ballots is preferable to violent revolution and bullets.

Fifthly, I have concerns about the idea of privatizing all land. While there are valid economic concerns about the so-called tragedy of the commons, can such cherished ideals as the right to peacefully assemble and protest be achieved without a commons? If all streets and roads were private, the owners could effectively crush peaceful protest. If libertarians recognize the legitimacy of widely held share-holder owned corporations and voluntary cooperatives, why can't other forms of collective ownership, such as a commons democratically governed also be recognized? Hence my fifth point of departure:

  • There is room within a libertarian society for many forms of ownership including common ownership, democratically controlled.

And finally, libertarians have, for the most part, been loosely associated with the right. Historically, libertarianism is a descendent of classical liberalism and the left. I recently came across a website called The Volunteer, named after a newspaper of the same name published by William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. The writers call their position bleeding heart libertarianism and argue that the natural alliance for libertarians should be liberalism, not conservatism. Even some liberals have made this point as noted in this article from the Huffington Post. Psychologically, I have always been more liberal than conservative. The right is peppered with people and ideas I find abhorrent. Their rhetoric is often strident and tinged with violence. So my fifth point of departure is:

  • Libertarianism should find common cause with liberalism. We share the same ideological roots and psychologically it is our home.

None of these change my basic position that an ideal society is one in which the initiation of force is banned. These points of departure are all concerned with the methodology of achieving and implementing change, not with basic libertarian ideology as such.

Continue to the section called Future for where this may eventually lead.

The Break Out Report is copyrighted by Break Out Publishing 2013