Not All Choices Are Equal
NOVEMBER 24, 2010 by SHELDON RICHMAN
Opponents of the freedom philosophy never run out of insipid rebuttals. The latest to have a go at it is Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.
Wolf ponders the question, “What is the role of the state,” and notes that a “strand” of classical liberalism (or libertarianism) “believes the answer is to define the role of the state so narrowly and the rights of individuals so broadly that many political choices (the income tax or universal health care, for example) would be ruled out a priori.”
Wolf here looks at choice from the perspective of the group, although only individuals choose. Thus he thinks if individuals are free, society is not free to do all that it might want to do, such as tax people’s incomes.
But the contest is not between society and individuals. So actually Wolf is lamenting that if libertarians had their way, some people could not use the State to restrict other people’s choices through the threat and use of aggressive force.
It is certainly true that libertarianism rules out some choices. But some choices are illegitimate. I can’t join Wolf in seeing a moral equivalence between wanting to keep the fruits of one’s labor and wanting to deprive others of theirs.
Wolf thinks libertarianism is “a hopeless strategy, both intellectually and politically.”
Why intellectually? “[B]ecause the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not ‘wrong’. The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values.”
I’m sorry, but I don’t quite get this. Is Wolf saying that government is the only advocate of the weak? When has government ever truly been the advocate of the weak? In any political system—including democracy—some are closer to power than others; some have a comparative advantage in manipulating the system, but it’s not the weak and vulnerable. Those in power use the weak to justify their usurpations. The weak may even be provided some level of succor—after having been exploited through mercantilism, corporatism, or one of the other alternatives to the free market. They must be pacified and rendered harmless, after all.
Wolf is certainly right that people hold incompatible values. One payoff of liberalism is that it permits peaceful coexistence among such people. When religion was a State matter, everyone had to be concerned that if his sect didn’t control the government, he would be persecuted. When no sect could gain political power, that threat disappeared and people could live peacefully even if they didn’t particularly like each other.
And why is liberalism hopeless politically? “[B]ecause democracy necessitates debate among widely divergent opinions. Trying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail. Under enough pressure, the constitution itself will be changed, via amendment or reinterpretation.”
Here Wolf stands on more solid ground. If people generally see nothing wrong in taking other people’s things or otherwise depriving them of liberty, they will undoubtedly get around any constitutional prohibition. A constitution is only as good as people’s understanding of it. No constitution interprets itself. We can’t program a computer with The True Meaning and have it resolve all constitutional disagreements. People will do the interpreting, and no interpretation can put an end to the interpretative process.
I have no simple answer for how to establish liberty or prevent ideological erosion once it’s established. Through a variety of activities (cultural and educational) we’ll have to re-instill the libertarian maxims most people learn as children but fail to apply politically: Don’t hit, don’t take other people’s stuff, and don’t break your promises (contracts). Libertarianism is just the consistent application of those maxims. Maybe, as Anthony de Jasay suggests, these need to become taboos—things people just don’t do, even if they can’t recite a philosophical argument telling you why.
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