Libertarians and Non-interventionism

When I used to hang out with Libertarian Party members around 15 years ago, one popular marketing slogan was “Libertarians — we’re pro-choice on everything!” Obviously, “pro-choice” in this context meant that libertarians tended to opt, wherever possible and to the extent possible, for enabling maximum individual freedom of choice. Example: why make it illegal for an adult to imbibe or smoke the substance of their choice if they can be allowed to make that choice and bear the consequences of their actions? One problem with the slogan was that a sizable minority of Libertarians have consistently come out against so-called “abortion rights” and have therefore come down on the “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice” side of that particular debate.

Today’s piece in Hit and Run by Matt Welch made me wonder if a better slogan for libertarians might be: “Libertarians — we’re non-interventionist on everything!” The asterisk would have to be that the context is government intervention. Remember that establishing a government is establishing a monopoly on the use of force against people, with the hope of bringing the use of force against people under the rule of law. Government intervenes (or should intervene) only when it is appropriate to use force to solve a social problem.

Libertarians can be defined as people who believe that the initiation of force by the government should be minimized as far as possible (which for some means eliminating it altogether).

Some guy is smoking weed? Okay. Is he posing an immediate threat to anyone else, such that the initiation of force against his exercise of liberty is appropriate? Government non-intervention seems a sane course.

A restaurant is serving some very salty soup to its happy customers? Hmmm. Is the restaurant posing some kind of threat that requires the use of government force to rectify? Seems highly unlikely.

Some community has just suffered a natural disaster? Individuals should be free to help out to the extent that their charitable impulse demands. But should the government use force against those who aren’t interested in helping, to compel them to help?

Someone doesn’t have enough food, clothing or shelter? People should be free to use social means to lend a hand, in whatever way seems best to them. Does it make sense for government to intervene (in other words, to use force, since that is what government is – force)?

A brutal dictator in the Middle East is oppressing his people who strive for freedom. Here it is more difficult for individuals and non-governmental organizations to help the oppressed, given that the dictator is at least trying to preserve his monopoly on force over his geographic area, and his people are located within that region. That often leads concerned citizens of other nations to call for armed intervention on behalf of the oppressed. Classic libertarian foreign policy non-interventionism would dictate remaining aloof.

The problem for libertarians, as the last few examples might indicate, is that people have a sliding scale when it comes to their desire for interventionism. Most people seem to consider the use of force against people, in “measured quantity,” to be acceptable to solve certain problems when a speedier or more thorough solution is hard (for them) to imagine arising through peaceful, voluntary action alone.

Libertarians often, and rightfully, object that there are unforeseen consequences to intervention in all of its various forms. But there are also unforeseen consequences to non-intervention. And people have a tendency, especially when led by professional altruists in the media, to demand that their government “do something” about a problem. Because “doing nothing” or “waiting and seeing” can seem flaccid, selfish, or just plain boring.

I conclude that libertarianism isn’t more popular than it is because a majority of people are comfortable with interventionism, and, whether or not it is marketed in the way I suggested above, these people deduce that libertarianism means non-interventionism.

So as long as people remain the way they are, and as long as they reward politicians based on conformance with their preferences, Matt Welch is probably right that the next President, even if he’s nominally a non-interventionist, will in fact intervene after the media altruists beat the drum loudly and frequently enough in a particular case. But Matt shouldn’t blame the “pro-interventionist idealists” lurking in the government bureaus for this outcome. He should blame the American people and their preferences — including their revealed preference for meddling in the affairs of others when they think the circumstances warrant it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us who lean libertarian should get about the business of educating our fellow citizens on the moral and practical benefits of non-interventionism in every sphere.


Ron Paul Says Force Doesn’t Work

Ron Paul emotes, he doesn’t do logic, and he therefore doesn’t persuade. I watched his CPAC speech via YouTube. He said, to take but one example, “Force never works.” (referring to foreign policy).

Now, I’m not a professional historian, but I am a very well read amateur historian with a specialty in military history, and I can list hundreds of examples throughout history where “force worked.”

Let’s take one that’s just mind-numbingly obvious: force destroyed the Imperial Japanese war machine and turned a fascist state that was a threat to all of Asia into a market-oriented provider of goods and services to most of the world whose people have enjoyed 65 years of peace and plenty.

So, obviously, Ron Paul is wrong about this. Could it be that he’s wrong about other things too? Like hard currency? In any case, being wrong on this one issue is enough to keep him out of the White House, since most Americans want their military to be the biggest, baddest dogs on the planet, and would prefer to be doling out the wallops rather than being on the receiving end of history.

On Banning Earphones

Steve Chapman has a piece up today at which discusses some obscure recent efforts to regulate the wearing of headphones on or near roadways. I think Chapman’s first paragraph gets to the nub of the issue: it is annoying that more and more people (mainly young people but also people old enough to know better) insist on using earphones and listening to music, or carrying on electronic conversations of various kinds, in every kind of public venue and at all times. What’s most annoying, for me, is those who must listen to their music all day and everywhere, including times where alertness to danger would be advisable, or the possibility of old-fashioned social interaction (I believe it’s called conversation) looms large. In my view, and I know that at least some share it, it’s rude to come into a public place with earphones on: it implies that everyone else is mainly an annoyance, that you wish they weren’t there so you could just be listening to your own music and doing whatever it is that you want to do. At the very least it cuts off any chance at the simple exchange of pleasantries that mark a civilized society.

I would agree that passing new laws isn’t the right solution, but would suggest that the offending behavior be treated as a social faux pas instead. Most people would rather break laws than commit faux pas. Such mechanisms, sometimes referred to as “shaming,” used to be in wide use, but where are these mechanisms now?

If you grant that I may have a point, you may then ask where is it acceptable to listen to music through earphones, and where not? I admit it can be a tough call. Sitting in a school library study stall would seem to be OK: it’s public, but you are in a private nook which is there to cut off disturbance from those around you. But in an airport lounge? A bus stop? Walking into the Post Office? Crossing a busy street?

Can the enforcement of social norms, to the extent that they even exist at this point, solve this “problem” without need of idiotic laws? Many in the crowd will say there is no “problem” in the first place, and maybe they’re right. But such answers will likely add to the common perception that libertarians are excessively atomistic, and that libertarianism is not consistent with a well functioning society.

James Donald’s Liberty File Collection

Quick post tonight to share a link to a very nice collection of webbed writings from the classical liberal and libertarian tradition collected, and sometimes written, by James A. Donald:

I don’t know James Donald, but I wish I did. He must be a long time denizen of the world wide web to be the owner of “”!

I found his essay on Natural Law and Natural Right to be fascinating reading. I think I first discovered this stuff 15 years or so ago. He spent a lot of time debating left wing anarchists over Spanish history, especially on what really happened in Catalonia. He also despises Chomsky, and has spent a lot of energy debunking Chomsky’s politics.

His demonstration that morality is objectively knowable was very influential in my thinking on these matters, and I still enjoy revisiting it from time to time.

Highly recommended.

On Banning Gay Marriage and Other Irrationalities

Why shouldn’t men be able to marry other men? Or women marry other women? Who is harmed? How can people be so bigoted? So close-minded? What do they have against gays? How does gay marriage do provable harm to heterosexual marriage? To children? To society? You can’t  demonstrate provable harm, so you have no reasonable basis on which to ban gay marriage.

These have been common rhetorical ricercare in the salons and blogs of the liberals and libertarians in recent years. They take a libertarian principle and carry it to its seemingly logical conclusion. The principle is that you have a right to liberty which can only be legitimately restricted (by the state, or otherwise) when it results in an infringement of my equal right to liberty. This is commonly stated more simply as “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” The conclusion is that, since gay marriages can have no such externalities (the economic term for when a freely swinging fist crashes into someone else’s nose, whether intentionally or not), there is no reason for the state to ban them, and no reason except fear or bigotry for the majority of Americans in most states to support such bans (as they evidently do, based on numerous polls over the past few years). In other words, the large majorities who wish to limit marriage to being between one man and one woman have nothing but irrational motivations for that preference.

I have at least one libertarian argument in favor of the proposition that marriage continue to be restricted to being between one man and one woman. But I have no intention of advancing one or more of those arguments in the current essay.

Instead I wish to examine the irrational world of “individual preference” and cultural norms. In order to make my thoughts clear to the reader, I first need to take a quick detour into economic “utility theory.”

People have something they pursue which economists refer to as “utility.” They like to increase their utility over time, or at least avoid any decrease in it. It’s not clear whether utility can be compared interpersonally because of its subjective nature. And it’s certainly not clear that a person’s utility function is anything like what we’d normally call “rational.” Some people like to sing praise to God on Sunday. Some people like to play soccer on the weekends. Some people like to climb mountains. Some people like to watch dog fights. Some people like to torture other human beings. Some people are happy to make lots and lots of money, and the more they make, they happier they get. Some people are happy if they make enough money for a decent living and have little desire to go beyond that.

People try to do what makes them happy (they try to maximize their utility), but since they live in a world where their actions provoke reactions, in both things and people, they must modify their actions to prevent a greater loss in utility via those reactions than that gained in the desired actions. For example, you may like to run dog fights, but your neighbors and fellow citizens may detest animal cruelty and punish you severely for doing so if you are caught. If the expected negative utility of that reaction (adjusted for the probability of being caught) exceeds in absolute terms the expected utility of achieving the desired end, rational people tend to avoid the desired action. They live in a constrained world where they are forced to accept less than that amount of happiness they could acquire in the absence of external impediments — some social and some simply physical.

But why, you may ask, should someone be offended by your wishing to stage dog fights? You may have a very well worked-out theory of property which states that any non-human entity can be property, to be disposed of as the owner sees fit. And you’ll find many to agree with you. Unfortunately for you, in 21st century America you’ll find many more people who will be offended by your actions. They’ll call for laws against dog fights, and may fine or imprison you if you persist in your behavior. They may oppose dog fights because they believe that such fights are cruel to animals, and that an animal’s right to live a life free of coerced pain trumps your right to use your property as you wish. An outside observer may see it differently, and conclude that their wish to avoid mental anguish at the suffering of animals trumps their willingness to let you use your property. I’m not sure the dog fight protesters have a coherent theory of rights, actually. I’m not sure I have a coherent theory of rights for that matter. But what I am fairly sure of is that they don’t wish to live in a society that allows cruelty to animals simply to afford pleasure to people they view as sadistic monsters. Their vision of a culture worth living in — a culture they themselves feel ownership in — does not include legal dog fighting. So they legislate bans on dog fighting.

I hope I’ve been able to establish an example wherein people have their (admittedly irrational and despicable) desires thwarted by a greater number of people acting in a democratic polity who wish to enforce their own cultural norms.

I’d now like to move on to another aspect of culture: sexual relations and their formalization in law and society.

Some men don’t ever want to be married. Some men have no greater desire than to marry one woman and settle down. Some men might like the idea of having a wife so much that they decide one is not enough and they’d like to practice polygyny.

Polygyny is illegal in the US by statute, as it is in most modern Western societies. From an economic perspective, this probably reflects the realization that polygyny would severely disadvantage most men (for every man who has four wives, there are three other men without wives). But the economic argument is considered and understood by few. Instead, monogamy is simply the accepted and enforced cultural norm. Norms like this evolved in the religious backgrounds and traditions of the people who created common law and the laws of these fifty states. People know what kind of culture they want. Strike that: it’s probably more accurate to say that they can tell you what kind of changes to their culture they don’t want, and won’t tolerate. And economic rationality often has little to do with it.

Regardless of the desire of a small minority to practice polygamy, the rest of us “like things the way they are, thank you very much.” We blithely pass and sustain laws that brutally repress those whose greatest desire in life is to marry multiple people. And most of us are perfectly happy to live with that.

A good friend of mine once described what he called the “Pat Buchanan position” in politics and culture: We like the culture to be a certain way. We may say that’s because it’s more beautiful, or satisfying, than some other cultural configuration. We like it the way it is. It’s ours. It’s evolved in an organic way over the centuries or millennia. It’s probably not perfect. But it’s worth preserving, maybe even worth dying for. I’d surmise that this in fact has been the position of 99.999999% of humans since civilization began, and probably even before. This Pat Buchanan model of culture and politics describes what amounts to an irrational bias. It explains things like patriotism and nationalism. It makes no appeal to economics.

Nor does modern economics or philosophy really present a challenge to this. We more and more accept that people are at their core irrational, in terms of what they pursue with their lives. Where rationality comes in is to provide a means to pursue those irrational goals. At least that’s my current view.

So, it’s quite simply the case that you can’t say whether someone is wrong or right, virtuous or villainous, in preferring a culture of monogamy to one of polygamy. They just do. In practice, then, they care about things that other people do, even if it doesn’t affect them directly, so long as it somehow affects the culture. And much as in the case of banning dog fights, they are more than happy to ban polygamy.

People like what marriage means in their culture, who’s allowed to participate in it, and under what conditions, and most have little enthusiasm about changing it.

Note that many, if not most, of these same cultural conservatives (which most people in history have been, overwhelmingly — for good or ill) would be in favor of the establishment of legal civil unions between same sex partners (or other people where warranted, such as two adult brothers uniting to care for a severely disabled younger orphaned sibling) so that common rights which married couples have can be shared by certain classes of unmarried people. They just don’t want what they think of as marriage to be redefined in the culture.

Where we’ve made great progress in the West is in finding ways for people to be relatively free even where they come up against cultural barriers. Compare the majority American attitude toward gays as reflected in their government and their laws and their entertainments to that in modern Iran. In America, we more often than not say that gays can create civil unions, and certainly do whatever they like in the privacy of their homes. In the theocracy of Iran, the government refuses to accept that gays exist (you may remember Ahmadinejad telling an audience at Columbia University that there are no gays in Iran).

“We” don’t like polygamy. “We” don’t like gay marriage. “We” don’t like public nudity. None of these three practices would mean the end of the human race if practiced widely. But they would change the prevailing culture in ways most people would prefer it not be changed. And this is because these are by their nature public things, rather than private things. This is the ingrained cultural conservatism we saw in the Hispanic and Black populations in California who voted overwhelmingly for Prop 8, even while voting in similarly overwhelming numbers for welfare state progressivism. Is this irrational? Yes. But so is all preference, including cultural preference.

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