Thursday, April 9, 2015

In defense of small-l libertarianism

Two porcupines by Denali National Park and Reserve is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
My name is David Colborne, and I'm a small-l libertarian.

Having been active in libertarian circles for a number of years, I've had several people ask me why I'm not a full-throated anarchist. Don't I think the initiation of force is evil? Don't I think government is inherently coercive? Why settle for smaller government, for minimal government, when I should clearly be advocating for no government as a matter of philosophical principle? My short answer has usually been, "Perhaps, but I'm not really sure that would work". My longer answer has been to throw such people at Scott Siskind's Non-Libertarian FAQ and then try to go through it point-by-point, but even that felt like it was dancing around the core issue that really prevents me from embracing Full Metal Anarcho-Capitalism.

Then, while reading Meaningness' Systems of meaning all in flames, I came across this passage:
Any serious system has a network of justifications that answer all “why” questions—not perfectly, but well enough for most people most of the time. So it ought to work.
That's when it hit me - "Big L" Libertarianism, the kind of Libertarianism you see presented from the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the kind you sometimes see from the Center for a Stateless Society, the kind you hear argued about at Libertarian conventions where people throw Murray Rothbard quotes at one another, is a system. Oh, sure, it's a heavily decentralized one (in theory), but it's still definitely a system.

Don't believe me? Ask it questions.

Okay, will there be law in an Anarcho-Capitalist society? Sure - there will be competing forms of law that individuals can choose from. Will there still be a police system? Absolutely - there will be several, in fact. But what about the roads? And so on. How are these questions answered? The same way any system answers questions - it makes certain base assumptions:
  1. The initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or property, is evil.
  2. Since government requires physical force to enforce its edicts, it is therefore, by nature, evil.
  3. Even if government didn't require physical force to enforce its edicts, it suffers from the knowledge problem - its information is incomplete - so it must, by its very nature, also be incompetent. 
  4. Therefore, all optimal solutions to all political problems must therefore be small, decentralized, self-governing voluntary organizations, i.e. a stateless society, with all services provided via a free market of exchange.
Then, using these assumptions, it solves for X. Worried about militaries? If they exist, they should purely be defensive in nature (see point 1), they should be voluntarily staffed (1, 4), and they should be voluntarily paid for (1, 4). How will this pay for nuclear weapons? It won't - nuclear weapons are inherently immoral due to the collateral damage incurred by detonating one (1). Okay, what about a social safety net? Easy - use private charity (4). Anything else, such as income redistribution, would violate all four tenets above, and probably be more harmful to boot since it's impossible for the anyone implementing a forced income redistribution scheme to know how much income needs to be transferred to poor people to meet their particular needs.

See? It's a system. It has rules. You can ask those rules questions and they'll answer them. It ought to work.

And that's my problem.

Simply put, I don't believe in systems, even ones based on ideological assumptions I happen to share. Even a system like Anarcho-Capitalism, one that is ostensibly decentralized, still requires everyone to play by the rules. Everyone has to believe that, even if 99 out of 100 people in a neighborhood think it's a really good idea to put up sandbags next to their river right before it floods, they are not allowed to use physical force to secure "consent" from the lone straggler. Those 99 people further must believe that "trespassing" under those circumstances is "physical force". Philosophically, if it's really a problem, they can just install sandbags around the property line of the lone straggler and let what may come - it may not be quite as expedient, but it's morally right, and that's what matters, isn't it?

Perhaps, but good luck convincing enough people for the system to work.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a wonderful idea. I'm sure there are plenty of arguments about why this system will work, why this system is morally right and good, why this system will lead to more happiness, health, and so forth. I'm sure they're all fascinating, and logical, too. None of that matters. There will be failures - perhaps warlords, perhaps violent feuds between competing companies, perhaps something totally unanticipated. Either way, it won't matter - eventually, people will tire of the problems of this system and replace it with something else, one that fixes these problems (and inevitably introduces new ones). This is, in my opinion, the lifecycle of all systems.

So what's the alternative?

There isn't one. Well, more accurately, there are several of them - you could probably paint me comfortably in a corner somewhere between political existentialism and nihilism and probably get "close enough for government work". My personal belief is that the philosophies behind Anarcho-Capitalism are arguably the most morally sound, that they make an excellent framework to consider differing political choices against, but that, as the old saw goes, "no plan survives contact with the enemy". When in doubt, we should try policies and prescriptions that move us in a Libertarian, potentially Anarcho-Capitalist direction, but we should also be willing to stop if we're not getting the desired results and try policies and prescriptions from other frameworks if they get us closer to the desired results than we were getting using the Libertarian framework.

Take defense, for example.

Any defense plan that calls on me to accept that, while defending my apartment, I may lose the lives of at least one member of my family is not what I would call an ideal defense plan. Similarly, any defense plan that requires me and my neighbors to suffer through about a decade or so of brutal occupation before we finally wear down our oppressors is also not what I, or any of my fellow voting neighbors, would call an ideal defense plan. Instead, we're probably going to collectively decide, with near total unanimity, that we should do everything possible to ensure that no fighting happens in our backyards, even if that potentially means periodically invading or destroying the backyards of those sketchy people across the street. Because of this, neither I nor my neighbors will ever voluntarily choose a strictly Non-Aggression Principle compliant defense structure if an alternative is available - we're not going to wait for others to invade our neighborhoods, in other words, before defending them. Not if we have the option to make those others defend their neighborhoods first.

Perhaps if we're feeling really principled, we might justify this on the grounds that, well, the Non-Aggression Principle also prohibits threats of violence, and, well, those people over there look awfully threatening...

Ah, but wait! - you're thinking to yourself - what if the other neighborhood makes the same decision? Well, congratulations - you just demonstrated that, even in a presumably stateless society, war will still happen. In fact, since individual neighborhoods will have far less effective methods of deterrence than your average nuclear arsenal or aggressively funded military-industrial complex, there's a pretty good chance that wars will be more common in a stateless society than they are now, even if they might in aggregate be considerably less destructive and shorter than the "total wars" of the 20th century - what's stopping either neighborhood from misjudging their opposing neighborhood's strengths or intentions? Consequently, if we really want a more peaceful, liberty-friendly environment, one in which people are free to do what they will without worrying incessantly about whether their paranoid neighbors from across the street might feel threatened and react accordingly, we shouldn't necessarily rule out a society in which one particular organization has a monopoly on violence - preferably an organization that all of us, including the paranoid neighbors, have some limited control individually but near-total control in the aggregate. Granted, history has shown issues with this approach as well, but it still seems to beat seasonal raids whenever someone's low on salt or bacon. Besides, whenever there are organizations competing for the right to commit violence for citizens in an area, the first thing everyone in the area wants is for the competition to stop, preferably before the competing organizations kill and maim everyone. Then again, small, local civil wars usually don't last for long periods of time or involve genocide like larger state-run conflicts, except when they do, so there's that.

Perhaps I'm wrong about defense, though. Maybe Scott's wrong about fish, despite further evidence to the contrary. Maybe the 19th century was wrong about private police forces and private scrip. Maybe if we re-privatize everything and get government out of the way once more this time will be different. It's possible - it's not the 19th century anymore, after all, and a lot of our beliefs, customs and technology have evolved dramatically since then. That counts for quite a bit, actually - it's a little harder to keep a "company store" going when Amazon's always around the corner, and it's a little harder to try to drum up business for your private security agency when everyone can record everybody. Maybe this time will be different. But, if it's not, if our attempts at increasing liberty result in, paradoxically enough, less liberty for most people, we need to retain the philosophical flexibility required to change tack and not confuse the path with the destination.

That's why I'm a small-l libertarian. Maybe you are too?

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