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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Are We For?

Libertarians can offer a positive, optimistic alternative vision of society


I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [libertarians] in the U.S. that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.
—Christopher Hitchens
Quite a few of my friends have forwarded me this quote. They consider it funny, but also insightful. In their view, the libertarian movement has no positive program, no specific goals or values of any kind. All libertarians do is oppose things and praise greed.
Given the general perception of libertarians, this seems to be a fair point: Other than greed, what are libertarians for? 
Everyone seems to know what we’re against: taxes, spending, regulation, and war. Most imagine the libertarian as some hairy guy living off the grid, carrying an AR-15 and tending his pot patch. The problem is that our side only rarely tries to offer a more balanced view, because many of us find the role of outré contrarian to be pretty darned comfortable.
The problem with that position—perpetual outsider and opponent—is that American politics needs us right now. The government is not providing the basic services that our more idealistic fellow citizens expect, and they want to know why. The things they think they want—healthcare, pensions, schools, the war on terrorism, and the war on drugs—are a litany of failures. We don’t need to pile on and say we’re against those things. We need to offer an alternative.
In other words: What positive, optimistic alternative vision of society (yes, of society, the social thing, where you actually talk to other people and work together) can we offer? Unless we can answer that, the next question will be, “Why don’t libertarians care about real people?”
If you get all the way to that question, we have a respectable counter.  We no longer expect politicians, bureaucrats, or self-appointed custodians of public welfare to care about real people; only a naïve idealist would do that. But we can realistically expect people to care about each other. Then, tell folks about Alexis de Tocqueville.

PlayPump: Somebody Ought to Do Something!

Before returning to Tocqueville, let us take an important detour.
In 2005, NPR reporter Amy Costello described a new technology: the “PlayPump,” which looks like a child’s merry-go-round but which also pumps water from the ground. When the children play, some water is brought to the surface, meaning that women who had had to walk several kilometers for water could now get water from a tap. It seemed like a terrific solution; 10 minutes walking around the pump saved 30 minutes to an hour of walking—each way—to get water from the river.
But when Costello followed up, five years later, things hadn’t turned out very well. In her words
I uncovered an array of problems with the way the technology had been implemented on the ground and I was dismayed to discover that the promise of the PlayPump had fallen woefully short.
During my reporting trip for the follow-up story, I traveled to Mozambique, where I met women who had been without their own supply of clean drinking water for months, because their PlayPump had broken down and had never been repaired or replaced. As I sat in the sand with those women, hearing their stories of anger and frustration, I felt partly responsible for their plight. After all, it was my initial glowing report that had helped to catapult the technology on to an international stage where it received millions of dollars in additional financing.
As a result of this experience, I have come to realize that we need to ask hard questions about seemingly good ideas. We should look closely and more critically at celebrated social entrepreneurs and the programs they spawn across the globe. I want to follow up on promising technologies and see what happened to them five, ten years down the road. I imagine we’ll discover that many ideas that appear simple and “good” on the surface, are actually not simple at all and are likely fraught with moral and ethical complexities.
It turns out that returning aid workers asked why no one had fixed the pump. The people of the town said that they were waiting for the government to do it. They were angry because they were sick and weak, because no one would help them. Far from lifting them up, the “aid” had only left them more dependent on others, less able to care for themselves.
If a society, any society, comes to believe that citizens have no power to fix things, and that we have to wait on the government, we all become sick, weak, and angry. Those people in Mozambique could have worked together and fixed that pump. But they have been taught since birth, since their grandparents’ birth, to think of themselves as children in a “family” headed by the State.

Get ‘er Done

In 1831 French historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, a memoir of his travels in the United States. It could have been called How Americans Get Things Done. Tocqueville marveled at how Americans worked together privately to solve civic problems. 
He was no fan of majority rule. The problem with political democracy, he said, is that citizens are isolated and “enfeebled.” They can do hardly anything by themselves, and they can’t force others to help them. He admired the American solution to this problem: Organize into private groups, and leave government out of it. As Tocqueville put it:
They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, their independence would be in great jeopardy, but they might long preserve their wealth and their cultivation: whereas if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered.
When libertarians seem to be “against” everything, this is what we are worried about. If citizens ignored politics, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we are worried that our excessive focus on politics will cause us to ignore society and each other. If we fail to connect as social beings in complex reciprocal exchange relations, modern “democratic” life becomes anomic and mean, just as Tocqueville foresaw. 
That—that—is what we are for: voluntary associations, in all their richness and bewildering complexity. 
If you want to go out and persuade some people to work with you, and all voluntarily work for the benefit of each, then that is libertarian social change. If someone wants to opt out and form a different association, they are free to do so. And that’s a good thing, because you get diverse experimentation in problem solving.

Waiting for the State

Tocqueville criticizes his countrymen in France. He had seen, in the legacy of the French Revolution, the damage that political democracy and a reliance on majority rule could do.
But when I read his critique today, I get a sick feeling. His criticism of France in 1831 is an even more scathing indictment of American society today. We have become a political democracy: Voting is the extent of civic action, and interest-group lobbying for power and wealth is the only route open to solve civic problems. 
The American spirit does not allow for sitting back and waiting for the State do it. If you are my neighbor, I’ll help you, and you’ll help me. We have direct, powerful, voluntary connections based on a thickly woven moral fabric of reciprocal obligations, complex organizations, and intricate relationships voluntarily negotiated and voluntarily ended.
Democracy, to the extent that it substitutes votes for action and taxes for charity, enfeebles the natural impulse people have to help each other. State action crowds out voluntary private associations. If the government is supposed to take care of all of us, then I have no moral obligation to pitch in, to help out. I see you attacked, and I look up and down the street and cluck to myself, “Why don’t the police do something?” If I see a bad school, I wonder why the state doesn’t improve it. If I see a broken pump, I wait with my neighbors, and we watch our children play in the dust. The great Murray Rothbard diagnosed the problem perfectly when he said that leaping from the necessity of social connection to claims about the necessity of State action is the world’s greatest non sequitur. 

What Are We For?  

So back to the main question.
Libertarians are for voluntary action, always. It is because we are for society—a vibrant, active society—that we resist the expansion of state power.
It is because we are for giving people a chance to reach their full potential that we doubt the motives and effectiveness of government. Political coercion corrupts the human spirit; political leaders tell us they take our wealth for our own good, and political processes straitjacket independent thought—the essence of liberty.
We are for individuals, working together in complex, interconnected organizations they have designed in their efforts to solve problems. 
We are for liberty, for celebrating the infinite and infinitely varied capacities of the human mind. Libertarians are for a limitless sense of the possible, for the idea that for a society of truly free and responsible citizens, nothing is impossible. 
We are for a libertarian society, where a couple wakes up, in their own home, on land that they control, on property that they can defend with the help of their neighbors. This couple formed a bond, by mutual consent, without needing the license or endorsement of any outside agency. They send their children to schools that they have chosen, whose curriculum they endorse. When they go out to their cars, they don’t take an I.D. It’s no one’s business who they are, or where they are, so long as they initiate no violence and break no laws. They work in jobs they have trained for, and they enjoy the full fruits of that labor. They contribute to charities or work for causes they believe in, and they are not forced at gunpoint to support causes they loathe.
What do these schools, these jobs, these causes, look like? What will people do? I have no clue. Each person will come up with a plan and try to carry it out, given his or her own goals, abilities, and vision of joy. Isn’t it arrogant to think that I could know what people will seek? Wouldn’t it be despotic to think that I have to know before people are allowed to try?
We are for each American. We are for families. And we are for groups of people working together to solve problems, serving their consciences and their own goals. We are for responsibility, and choices, not because people need to be more selfish but because they need to feel they have the power to act and the compass to achieve. 
Only our movement can give America back the most sacred bequest—liberty.

  • Michael Munger is the director of the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University. He is a past president of the Public Choice Society.