Monday, June 14, 2010

Thoughts on the Limitations of Libertarianism

I have a certain sympathy for the libertarian view, as I've noted before on this blog.  That is to say, it troubles me when government acts to restrict our thought or conduct, when we don't harm others.  As to our thought, I see no basis on which government should restrict us at all.  When harm results from our conduct, then government may legitimately exercise its police power to regulate us; just how much it should do so is a complicated matter, and the extent of harm required to justify the restriction is not an easy issue to address either. 

Libertarianism is often justified by reference to natural or God-given rights.  Not being particularly religious, I'm not inclined to claim God as a basis for the unfettered exercise of conduct, or thought for that matter.  I'm not so opposed to reference to nature in these circumstances, though, if what is referred to is human nature, and the fact that we have certain characteristics and abilities in common, generally desire certain things, like happiness, peace and comfort and reasonably believe we should not be unnecessarily imposed on by government or others provided we do no harm.

Well and good.  Government should leave us alone, for the most part.  But if I think there is value in certain things, like happiness, peace and comfort, and that I should be allowed to achieve them, doesn't it follow that others should be allowed to do so as well?  What, then, if they can't, not because of restrictions imposed by government, but because of their circumstances?  Does the libertarian opposition to government restrictions entail opposition to government action to improve the circumstances of those who are not in the position to live in happiness, peace and comfort?

I would say no; this doesn't seem to follow.  But, to improve the circumstances of others, government needs resources, and it has none unless it taxes or imposes fees for government services.  When it imposes taxes or fees, it restricts the abilities of some to pursue what they think is appropriate or desirable.  Is it appropriate to oppose this kind of restriction?

It is inherent in the position that we each have certain rights that others have such rights in addition to ourselves.  So, it can't be maintained that those who cannot exercise such rights don't have them.  It can only be maintained that they can't exercise them, because they're less fortunate than we are.

Should the response to this be "that's too bad" or (shudder) "that must be the way God wants it to be" or some variant?  This seems a mean, selfish, contemptible option.  What is the libertarian response?  Will the fabled "Invisible Hand" make all right eventually?  That seems just another kind of mysticism.

I just finished a book by Larry Hickman about John Dewey and his "pragmatic technology."  I may have more to say about this later.  But I was struck by his explanation of Dewey's response to those on the left and the right who maintained that he was naive to believe that we can remedy economic and other social problems through the exercise of intelligence and education.   Dewey was accused of being sentimental, and it was claimed pragmatism provided no justification for the betterment of others.

Dewey's response, according to Hickman, was that it was only reasonable to improve the condition of those who were poor, illiterate, unskilled, etc.  By doing so, we can avoid violence (through revolution and otherwise).  We can increase their contribution to society which will inevitably better our own position.  They can become investors and participants in the social enterprise rather than outcasts or parasites.

So there can be some pragmatic basis for social welfare (even in the common sense of "pragmatic").  There need be nothing of the charitable impulse involved, if that makes anyone uncomfortable.  The question then is how to go about it effectively.

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