One of our intermittent tasks here on The Partially Examined Life is to try to engage with current rhetoric in popular intellectualism. Our recent episode on white privilege attempted to separate the facts involved (race disparities) from the concepts used to characterize those facts (“privilege”) and from what concrete actions could be used to address the actual problems (concluding, for one, that the notion of privilege is not essential for being an activist with regard to those problems).
My attention was recently redirected to another popular and seductive set of ideas that we’ve dealt with in the past (most directly on our Robert Nozick episode): Libertarianism. I’m very sympathetic to Penn Jilette’s presentation in this video from last summer published by Big Think, but I see significant problems with his two major claims:
The two claims in question are:
- We do not know what’s best for other people and
- Since governance is ultimately founded on the threat of violence, the government should only exert its power regarding those things that we would ourselves defend with a gun.
The short answer to claim (1) is that while yes, of course each of us is a unique conundrum with our own path to follow, and so of course the government should not, for instance, administer aptitude tests and then route each of us into the jobs most suited for us, we do know quite a few things about people in general, both with regard to our material well-being and with regard to less tangible psychological factors having to do with dignity and freedom. We know, for instance, that any system that so tested us and routed us against our will into predefined professions would be monstrous. We know that not only poverty, but the threat of poverty hovering just one lost job or medical emergency away, is oppressive. We often use the rhetoric of “rights” to talk about those things that, as a society, we’ve more or less agreed that people should not be subjected to, or someone claiming that there is such a right wants this kind of agreement. Jillette’s formulation should lend us a sense of humility in our social engineering, but the task of social engineering itself is unavoidable: We’re already being engineered by social forces, and it’s much better to try to steer these for good rather than just people’s lives be determined by the market or other so-called “natural” forces.
Claim (2) is much more interestingly wrong. I agree that government is ultimately founded on violence, in that as Jillette says, eventually, if you don’t pay taxes or otherwise disobey laws, someone with a gun will show up at your house. I think that the “ultimately” is an important caveat here, as the degree to which force is hidden significantly alters our experience of power, as we’ve seen recently with the stories in the news about airline passengers being forcibly removed. Order in an elementary school, likewise, is ultimately based on physical force, in that if a student is irascible enough, staff and perhaps eventually police will remove that student from the environment, but we rely on the fact this seldom happens, that this threat is not what actually keeps students in line given the more immediate, and much more mild punishments available.
In any environment that people actually have to live in day in and day out, some control is needed. “What would I be willing to defend with a gun?” asks Jillette. Well, the obvious and humane answer is that this threat of deadly force is only justified in preventing harm, and I think the harm to be prevented should be pretty close to deadly as well (so use stun guns instead!). But think of all the ways that someone could clearly abuse a shared environment that fall short of physical harm. Theft, for one: the notion of private property barely survives Jillette’s thought experiment. Sure, I’d (in theory, if there was no police) use a gun to defend the possessions I need (and others I care about need) to survive, as that’s an extension of protecting myself and others from harm, and of course there’s that whole principle of “if I let them take my chicken, they’ll know I’m vulnerable and will next take my child.” But do we really not have the legitimate power, through majority rule with rights enforced to protect minorities, to prevent the public space from being littered with crap?
As with the elementary school, the character of the incentives is important in determining concretely whether we feel ourselves to live in a just, free society. If you engage in commerce, you’re entering into a public space, and it’s in all of our interests to not have a “let the buyer beware” atmosphere, to make sure that doctors and lawyers and other people who are allegedly protecting our interests really have the ability to do so without us each having to individually investigate our potential trading partners. If someone violates these kind of professional and economic regulations, the first repercussion is not a SWAT team showing up at your house and killing your dog. It’s a fine, a warning, a lawsuit, disbarment or other profession-specific ostracism. The same goes for failing to pay your taxes. In all cases, it’s only if you’re seriously irascible, again, that the cops get called into it.
We would all like in theory to be fully free from that threat of the cops, and we should always keep in mind exactly how horrible it is for someone to actually be arrested, jailed, threatened with deadly force, and remain humble and, let’s say for lack of a better word, conservative in what actions we’d like to be prohibited with such a threat. But even Jillette admits that taxes, for one, are needed, at least to fund the military/police/emergency services, and so we already have that experience in place for people whereby they’re required to pay taxes, and if they don’t, they’ll eventually go to jail. This experience does not change one bit if you use those taxes to pay for a lot of other things including schools, libraries, roads, medical subsidies, anti-poverty programs, etc. etc. etc. Being in a society means that there are limits on freedom, and it’s up to us as a deliberative body to argue piecemeal over every proposed tax and expenditure. Libertarianism as Penn describes it claims to offer principles that relieve us from having to actually think through specific, complicated cost-benefit scenarios, but there is no philosophy that can deliver us from thinking.