Skip directly to content

How do libertarians think?

Historian's picture
on Tue, 02/17/2015 - 16:57

It is easy to fall into policy arguments from different political perspectives. But deciding policy comes from underlying philsophy. A recent post on Quora gives insight not into just policy but on "how libertarians think". 

The following was posted by: John David Ward, Northern San Joaquin Valley, California.

  • A positive view of and appreciation for freedom and philanthropy as real things, not simply code words.  A philanthropist is something more than simply a euphemism for a rich guy buying respectability. There is a vital social role played by little philanthropists, who set up scholarships, volunteer in homeless shelters, develop vaccines, fund starving artists, lend money to their neighbors in need, and so on—even though most of these little philanthropists will never be recognized by history.
  • Freedom and personal responsibility, and that one implies the other. That freedom and responsibility are inseparable, like two sides of a coin. Freedom is more than having nothing left to lose. Having nothing left to lose just means having no responsibilities, not being free.
  • Methodological individualism, that good and evil really only exist on a personal level, as a result of decisions made by individuals. According to this view, it is wrong to blame or praise society for the good or bad choices made by individuals, or to blame or praise individuals for the bad choices made by others members of their society.
  • That there are unintended consequences to every action. Central planners often assume that people won't change their behavior in perverse and unpredictable ways in reaction to new rules, whereas libertarians, one might say, probably go too far in the other direction.
  • That history is primarily the history of the people than the history of government. All societies exist in time and are in the process of change, and history is the sum of decisions made and institutions founded by individuals. During times of rapid social change, laws are more often lagging indicators of a shift in values that began among the people than drivers of it. Fair laws don't make people good; it's the fact that people are good that makes them demand fair laws. In other words, wherever morality comes from, it's not from legislation.
  • That the burden of proof should fall on authority. It's not the place of the weak to convince the strong that they deserve to be free in some particular aspect of their life, but the place of the strong to convince the weak, and to abide by their judgment if they are unconvinced.
  • Regulation is not simply a uniform substance that you can turn up and down like the dial on a thermostat. Some regulations are good, and some of them are bad, but the overall effect of new regulation is neutral to detrimental. We can be more certain that we are working for the greater good when we critically evaluate currently existing regulations than by calling for the introduction of new regulations which, by being untested, may or may not work. It's as if there were a bag filled with marbles (possible types of regulation), orange and blue. We've poured some of the marbles out on the ground. If our goal is to make all the marbles orange (improve the average efficiency of the regulatory apparatus) we can better accomplish this by looking them over carefully and picking out the blue marbles than by pouring more out of the marbles out of the bag.
  • That regulatory capture is a real thing and big businesses are just as often interested in building government up as tearing it down. Regulations are often written by lobbyists of the very same industries they're supposed to regulate, and they'll usually be written in such a way as to magnify the comparative advantages of big businesses at the expense of smaller ones. We can't afford to fall into some simplistic dichotomy in which corporations want to tear government down and citizens want to build it up. The opposite is often true.
  • A realization that laws don't repeal themselves. It is the place of active, concerned citizens to do this. It takes just as much effort and participation from the people to repeal a law than it does to enact it in the first place, perhaps more so. If citizens don't take the lead in doing this, who will? We need to make sure that the people working to fix what the government is doing wrong are given the respect they deserve.
  • A nuanced, rather than black and white, view of the relationship between law and ethics. Just because doing something is good and a net benefit to society, doesn't mean that not doing it is bad and should be criminalized, and just because something is wrong doesn't mean that outlawing it couldn't make it worse and more dangerous. It's not enough to point out that some particular behavior is bad; we have to actually establish that government intervention can efficiently correct it.
  • There are things which are good only because they are consensual, and that when they cease to be consensual, they cease to be good. This is an important distinction that is often ignored. It should be obvious that it doesn't follow that just because sex is good, rape is. Likewise, just because desegregation is good, doesn't mean forced integration is better. Just because trade unions are good, doesn't mean forcing people to join them against their will is good.
  • That power tends to corrupt, and absolute power absolutely corrupts. It isn't a matter of getting the right party into the White House or the chambers of congress, as making sure that whoever occupies these positions can't take their own righteousness for granted, no matter who they are.
  • That the laws of cooperation are not scale-invariant. The rules and principles under which a household or a boy scout troupe or a military battalion or a county volunteer fire department operates efficiently are not the same ones that apply to a whole country. The principles that make it a good idea to share your pudding with the rest of your classmates in kindergarten are not the same as those on which a just society of tens or hundreds of millions of people can be based.
  • That the laws of fiscal responsibility are scale-invariant, in the sense that in the long run even a large country cannot perform a loaves-and-fishes miracle and hand out more money that it takes in as revenue.
  • That there's an asymmetry of information between the people and their government, and the people are never fully aware of true cost of what they're asked to support and to pay for. The government can be thought of as a mechanic who charges extra for a new part you don't need just because he knows you don't understand what's wrong with your car.
  • That, just as the true character of a person is revealed by the way they treat their waiter rather than the way they treat their boss, a state should be judged by the condition of the people it has hurt, not the condition of the people it has helped. The first rule is always "Do no harm." Apathy and cruelty are both bad, but of the two, apathy is to preferred. There's a big difference between an act of ommission and an act of commission, when it comes to intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign nations in particular,  but in domestic matters, too.
  • A nuanced view of progress and the future in which society is neither a wholly evil edifice that needs to be torn down in violent revolution nor a panglossian paradise that must be preserved against all change. Rather, the future is inevitably uncertain, full of events that can't be foreseen. The future isn't to be fought against or to worshipped, but simply to be prepared for. Preparing for the future requires a degree of planning, the question being who should do the planning: central authorities or private parties with first hand knowledge.
  • That in times of controversy, it is better to split the difference and let part of a country or continent or society experiment with one idea and another part of the country experiment with another than to force both into the same situation and risk them both being wrong.
  • That voting at the polling place is only one way among many that citizens make their voices heard, and in many respects it's the least important. Indeed, voting serves society more than it serves the individual voter, so it's more a duty than a privilege. Voting is not, by itself, a solution to the problem of bringing power to the people. That requires people to havedirect control over their lives.

Post new comment