Category Archives: Vaguely Philosophic

A Rejection of Libertarianism

As those of you who know me are aware, there is relatively little love lost between me and libertarian political philosophy. Most of the time, this becomes apparent in random snide remarks and short comments in response to articles/actions of the day. So, I thought I’d try to define my rejection of libertarianism in the United States more thoroughly and, perhaps at the same time, grow to understand it a bit better myself.

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Perhaps it is easiest to begin with what was one of the scandals du jour: Rand Paul’s comments on how businesses should have been permitted to discriminate in deciding to whom to provide their services. Essentially, his argument was that the marketplace would deal with such behavior itself—these companies would lose the opportunity to have, say, business from black people, and white people would find the company to distasteful to use, causing it to fail. Prejudice would be excised as business interests came to dominate personal preferences. Any attempt by the government to enforce a change not supported by all the people—thus trampling on what some would regard as the right to discriminate—is illegitimate, because in promoting the rights of some it would be limiting the rights of others.

Effectively, Paul, and most—but not all—libertarians would seek to promote the constraints imposed by the “marketplace” as the method by which a society governs itself internally. Government can provide for common defense from external threat and enforcement of contracts between individuals, and, maybe, fire departments, but that is about it. Social standards would develop in response to, and personal behavior would be constrained by, the ability of other people to refuse to interact with you based on your preferences. Intervention, for what could be regarded as positive or negative reasons depending on the individual, is to be prevented, since it would necessarily place an unnatural—i.e. non-marketplace-induced—restriction on personal freedom. While this may describe a consistent system of thought, at least for the most part, it is not a desirable one—consistency cannot be our sole measure of desirability.

Indeed, libertarianism in this sense is actually quite reprehensible. In substituting the “marketplace” for the ability of the government to promote or discourage certain behaviors, it leaves a society with little else other than to suffer under the tyranny of the majority belief in any particular area. Functionally, in a community where there is an established majority mindset, any behavior that is detrimental to the lives of the resident minority (short of, say “natural crimes” like murder) could not be acted against or expected to disappear—the government would not be permitted to intervene, and an established majority would, naturally, not feel any economic pain from accommodating its own views.

In reality, the very idea of eliminating minority discrimination would only gain traction in accordance with either the growth of that group’s economic power or the potential slow evolution of a more accommodating mindset among the majority. Such majoritarian rule is precisely in opposition to what the United States was created to be—a pluralist state with respect and equal treatment for all people, not a state in which the lives of its citizens were subject to the whims of the dominant social group of the time.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that government intervention can be unerring—policy as implemented or conceived can be just as wrongheaded as the views of any individual. However, maintaining a government charged with actively protecting the rights of minority groups, in whatever form they take, I regard as vastly preferable to living within a state that leaves the determination of social policy to the “marketplace,” a creative term meant to obscure the essential reliance on majority tyranny that forms a crucial leg of libertarian political philosophy.

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Preferences and Morality

I was prompted to this particular area by reading this post on a friend’s blog. At the risk of misunderstanding part of that post, what I mainly seek to comment on is the relationship between preferences we have as individuals and the judgments of morality.

I would think that expressed moral judgment would indeed require or rely upon expressed or latent preference, whether that preference is indeed for something that we judge good for ourselves or bad for ourselves. We can easily have a preference for something that “hurts” us in a sense if we feel that it is the more “moral” choice–in the most extreme case, take the example of an aged invalid who kills himself in order to free up more resources for the community. If he prefers for his community to prosper, and regards himself as too-heavily a net consumer of resources, then his preference would dictate that the moral judgment is not to go on living. On the other side of the coin, we may certainly reject what  can be perceived as “good for us” as immoral based on preference–one only needs to look at people who choose to vote in favor of increasing their own taxes. The individual would benefit from having more money, but his preference for society to provide more services requires him to reject such a benefit as too self-serving.

In the absence of any preferences, I’d think that it would be impossible to form a moral judgment–how could one express what should be done without having a perception of, and desire for, the results of whatever it is that should be done? The very concept of normative argumentation, or arguing for what should be, requires expressing a preference for or against a proposition.

Certainly not all preferences lead to moral considerations: my preference for mint-chocolate-chip ice cream really does not lead me to make any moral judgment of other ice creams or other people. That, however, argues from the wrong direction: not all preferences must lead to moral considerations, but all moral considerations would seem to have their roots in expressed or latent preferences, even (and especially) those preferences wherein the individual in question “loses” but others have the opportunity to gain.