Postlibertarian Blues

by Roderick T. Long

Author’s note: This piece was submitted in May 1992 to Jeffrey Friedman’s
journal Critical Review, but not published. For my more recent thoughts on some
of these issues, see my 2002 piece Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?,
as well as my review of Leland Yeager’s Ethics as Social Science.

Jeffrey Friedman’s article “Postmodernism vs. Postlibertarianism” (Critical Review vol. 5, no. 2) criticises the term “libertarianism” on the grounds that, in light of socialist arguments that property rights restrict freedom, it is “obtuse for advocates of the minimal state to continue to equate their goal unselfconsciously with ‘liberty’ or the ‘free’ society.” (p. 147.) I agree that such an equation should not be made unselfconsciously, and that libertarians need to take seriously the socialists’ charge that property restricts liberty; but from this it hardly follows that the socialists are right. If property rights do not in fact represent a restriction of liberty, then there is nothing inappropriate in the name “libertarian.” So Friedman needs to show that this socialist charge is indeed correct before any libertarian will be able to take his linguistic advice seriously.

On some conceptions of liberty, property violates it; on other conceptions of liberty, property is its realisation. But there may be compelling philosophical arguments for accepting some conceptions of liberty and rejecting others. Friedman is certainly right to call for a more careful analysis and scrutiny of the notion of “liberty”; but will the result of this analysis inevitably be that the socialists are right and the libertarians are wrong? Friedman has given us no reason to suppose that this is so; and rather than defending either the libertarian or the socialist conception of liberty, Friedman ultimately advises us to drop the whole issue and focus on economics instead.

Friedman’s criticism of the term “classical liberal” is also ill-founded. It is true that the early classical liberals called for a more expansive governmental role than most contemporary libertarians do; but the fundamental continuity of basic principles should not be ignored. Nozick has more in common with Locke, and Hayek has more in common with Smith, than the different branches of “socialism” have with one another. I see no reason to withhold the term “classical liberal” from those thinkers who have developed more fully the radical implications inherent in the theories of Locke, Smith, and others.

Moreover, in light of the fact that Mill and Spencer were contemporaries who responded to each other’s writings, it seems a bit tendentious for Friedman to assign Mill to an early, more statist period of “classical liberalism,” and Spencer to a later, less statist period of “neoliberalism.” (If anything, Spencer is closer to the tradition of Locke and Smith than Mill is.)

Friedman’s preferred term “minimal statist” is not very attractive. Who wants to call himself a statist, minimal or otherwise? In addition, Friedman’s suggestion has the effect of linguistically purging from the ranks of the free-market movement all those libertarians who are anarchists – and that includes a fair number of the postmodernists described by Friedman himself as “the most innovative participants in CRITICAL REVIEW.” (p. 150.)

Friedman urges libertarians (or classical liberals, or whatever we’re supposed to call them) to return to their “consequentialist roots.” What roots are those? Consequentialism has always been part of the case for liberty, but it has rarely been the whole case. The roots of the pro-liberty movement in fact lie in the Natural Law tradition; a continuous line can be traced back from Rand and Rothbard to Spooner and Spencer, to Paine and Jefferson, to Locke and Sidney, to Milton, the Levellers, Grotius and Pufendorf, to Suárez and the Salamanca School, to Aquinas and Ockham, to Cicero and the Stoics, and finally to Sokrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (Even Adam Smith’s case for liberalism was not wholly consequentialist.) Not until the nineteenth century did utilitarianism seize the liberal banner; and on the contemporary philosophical scene, utilitarianism is everywhere in retreat. The incisive criticisms of philosophers like John Rawls and Bernard Williams have gained widespread (though not universal) acceptance in the philosophical community, and have permanently dislodged utilitarianism from the position of ascendancy it had enjoyed for the first seven decades of this century. Embracing a theory generally discredited as unjust and simplistic is unlikely to win libertarianism many followers. The ethical and political discourse of the twenty-first century may be Aristotelean, or Kantian, or even sentimentalist; but it will not be utilitarian, or at least not exclusively so. There seems to be almost a kind of positivist nostalgia in Friedman’s advice to hitch the wagon of liberty to the waning star of utilitarianism.

Friedman’s objection to morally principled antistatism is that “if private property is intrinsically just … then it cannot possibly matter whether protecting private property results in, say, a prosperous, humane, harmonious, or satisfying society rather than in mass starvation, indifference, discontent, or alienation.” (pp. 147-148.) I cannot see why this follows. First, moral arguments might create a (strong but defeasible) presumption of liberty; this would make consequentialist considerations relevant to the defense of libertarianism, but would not make that case exclusively cosnequentialist. Nozick, for example, was willing to waive libertarian rights in the face of “catastrophic moral horror,” but not in the face of minor inconveniences. Also, Den Uyl and Rasmussen, in their recent book Liberty and Nature, defend natural rights to liberty but hold that these rights apply only in circumstances in which social cooperation is possible (mass starvation not being such a circumstance). Friedman’s criticisms are simply irrelevant against such versions of “moralistic” libertarianism.

Second, even if the non-consequentialist moral case for liberty makes rghts absolute, consequentialist considerations might be relevant in a different way. Friedman assumes that harmful consequences of liberty could cast doubt on libertarianism only if the justification of liberty were consequentialist in the first place. But one need not be a consequentialist about morality in order to have good reasons to expect morality and beneficial consequences to go together. To give just two examples, a theistic libertarian might believe that what makes liberty-respecting actions right is not their social consequences but the fact that they are commanded by God; and an Aristotelean libertarian might think that what makes liberty-respecting actions right is not their social consequences but the fact that they are realisations of the agent’s essentially human nature. Yet the theist may believe that a loving God is unlikely to command actions with devastating social consequences, while the Aristotelean may believe that agents whose individual self-realisation necessarily conflicts with the collective survival of the species are unlikely to evolve in the first place; so in each case, because of these independent premises, such a libertarian could consistently regard bad social consequences as at least prima facie evidence against libertarianism, without thereby admitting that libertarianism is consequentialist in its moral foundations.

Friedman’s case for embracing economic arguments and shunning moral ones seems as dubious as that offered by some libertarians for embracing moral arguments and shunning economic ones. Libertarian conclusions are, or should be, the product of wide reflective equilibrium; and in attempting to cook up this dialectical synthesis, it seems reasonable (both in discovering the truth and in persuading others) to throw everything we have into the pot: natural-law moral arguments, consequentialist economic arguments, appeals to historical examples, appeals to the common moral consensus against theft and assault, etc.. This is what classical liberals have been doing since the seventeenth century, and doing very well.

I agree with Friedman that the postmodern rejection of objectivity represents an unpromising path to liberty; but his own “postlibertarian” rejection of non-utilitarian morality is equally unpromising. Any plausible defense of a free-market social order – or of any social order, for that matter – will have to incorporate both moral and practical considerations. A morality that ignores practical consequences looks like blind dogmatism – but a practicality that ignores moral questions of individual sovereignty looks like unprincipled expediency – and is as likely as the former to “rob minimal statism of any possibility of success.” Neither represents a standard to which the wise and just can repair.

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