Saturday, September 16, 2006

Left libertarianism

I've occasionally come across people who call themselves left libertarians but I've always thought it something of a contradiction in terms. You can't force people to do things and then tell them they're free.

Chris Dillow is one such, and he's written a piece at Philosophy etc, explaining why he's not a classical liberal. It's quite interesting in that it has helped me understand some of the thinking which underpin LL ideas. I can't say I'm impressed.

There's lots to take issue with.
1. A missing theory of property duties. [...] To justify inequalities of property, you must demonstrate that the poor have a duty to respect the rich's property. How can this be done?

John Locke had one answer. Private ownership, he said, was OK as long as it left "enough and as good" for others. We should therefore respect others' property simply because it's doing us no harm - there's enough and as good land for us to use. Even if this proviso held in Locke's time, it obviously doesn't hold today. So how can we justify property inequality?
It's not obvious to me that there's no longer enough and as good land for us to use. The quantity of available land hasn't changed - it was all owned by someone then and it's all owned by someone now. If you want it, you just have to buy it.

Besides the whole focus on land as a synonm for property is completely irrelevant in the twenty first century when most wealth is not derived from land, but from industry. "Property" has to be considered in its broader sense. Once you realise this, then it quickly follows that you should respect others' property because they have earned it (or inherited it, or won it in a game of poker) and not you. You should respect it because this is the only basis for a civil society; because only in a civil society can you expect any respect for your property.

2.Autonomy is a real value, not a notional one. Classical liberals [...] devote much effort to defining liberty and justice as the absence of state coercion. They devote less effort to saying why these conceptions are so valuable. Left libertarians, by contrast, believe values matter to the extent that they promote human development and thriving. In some (many?) cases, the mere absence of coercion does not suffice to do this.

Imagine a man dying of thirst in the desert, whilst a bystander has plenty of water, but no inclination to help him. Classical liberals say this is a just position - there's no state coercion.
But most of us would think things would be better if the state did intervene, to force the man with water to help the dying man.
I would have thought that most classical liberals define liberty as the absence of any coercion (as indeed does my dictionary). Slavery was a private institution, after all. Most of the libertarian literature I've read (which is not a great deal, I might say) is quite clear that this is the only basis by which humankind can develop and thrive. Forcing them into particular actions which the state deem important or beneficial doesn't cut the mustard.

The example given, of a failure to save a dying man, looks like a straw man fallacy. I imagine most classical liberals would not condone manslaughter, which is what this is.
3. Self-ownership doesn't justify inequalities. A cornerstone of Nozick's libertarianism is the principle that we own ourselves, so that any effort to tell us what to do is a form of slavery.

This principle, though, doesn't justify inequalities of income, because incomes are jointly produced by individual talents and social circumstances. Thierry Henry's skills as a footballer, Bill Gates' as a software developer or Paul McCartney's as a songwriter would have earned them little 100 years ago. Even if they own their talents, they've no right to the social conditions in which these talents can thrive.
This statement (
One might equally turn it around and ask the left libertarian whether equality justifies slavery) is flat wrong. Incomes are not jointly produced, they are recompense to an individual's contract of employment. So what if these people wouldn't have made money 100 years ago? (Computers hadn't even been invented!). People receive reward in proportion to the demand for their services and how much competition there is in the supply of it. If people currently don't want their services very much then they need to be doing something else. Surely it can't be argued that people should be forced to pay more for a service that nobody actually really wants - this doesn't seem very, well, libertarian. (One could be very facetious and wonder if, in 1885, Bill Gates might have argued for billions of dollars a year in payment for the software he was going to write after computers had been invented).
4. Inequality is a form of market failure. This matters, because it shows that the wealth of these people is the result of luck - the luck of being born into the right time, or into the right society.
I don't buy this argument at all. You can't have a labour market unless there are unequal outcomes (ie prices for labour). If the reward is the same to all, regardless of supply or demand for the service, then you have no pricing mechanism, no way to know what services are demanded, no way to know which are not. You have no market in other words. Inequality is a feature, not a bug.

5. Markets don't work perfectly. Classical liberals believe free markets do indeed promote human thriving. This is deeply true - up to a point. But there are problems. Markets generate creative destruction, imposing losses, albeit temporary, upon millions. They don't give people self-determination and autonomy at work, because most firms are ruled by a hierarchical managerialist ideology which might be out-dated.
My response has to be "So what?". The question is whether there is a better way than free markets, the fact that there are failings in markets does not make the case that there is a better way. Besides, most of what are fingered as failings are no such thing. Creative destruction is again a feature, not a bug. It means that the market stops people supplying goods and services that nobody wants. Losses are its way of saying "Stop". Nobody has self-determination and autonomy at work, no. This is because there are other parties with an interest in what you are doing - namely the customer and the employer (who the individual has agreed to take orders from). Nobody can seriously argue that the individual is operating in a void.
6. Demands for equality won't go away. There's another way in which classical liberals are strangely Stalinist. They seem to want to over-ride the huge public demand for state intervention. This ignores the question: how can we preserve and expand economic liberty in the face of this?
This is nonsense. The whole point of liberalism (and libertarianism) is the belief that the individual has an area of autonomy from the state (whether democratically elected or not). The mere fact that a large number of people want something does not, to the liberal or libertarian, justify it.