I would not be doing my job as a libertarian blogger if I did not link to the blog war between Todd Seavey on the one hand and Kerry Howley/Will Wilkinson on the other (with minor roles played by Helen Rittelmeyer and Julian Sanchez). The best link (in the sense that it points to almost all the other relevant links) is the post by Todd above; navigate from there! Keep in mind that all the characters in the fight are multiply related — not only are they all writers for Reason magazine but there is a complex boyfriend/girlfriend/ex-boyfriend web that connects them — as Todd triumphantly describes. Enjoy!
I will not take sides except to say that in their own ways, both Todd and Kerry are right. Todd is right in what the political or legislative aspect of libertarianism ought to concern itself with. State coercion is fundamentally different from social coercion, maximizing negative liberties is the correct political prescription, property rights do lie at the heart of freedom.
Let me be clear — I am not dismissing the importance of positive liberty. However, demands that too much positive liberty be provided by the state invariably leads to authoritarianism, as history has shown again and again. Moreover, the curtailment of your basic property and personal rights, in a purely moral sense, is in a different plane from not being able to make the most of your life. If anything, this distinction between negative and positive liberty (and between state and social coercion) is the essence of libertarianism.
But Kerry is also right that situations exist that do not involve state coercion but nonetheless are liberty-restricting, at least in the way the term ‘liberty’ is commonly used. The question is what is the right way to address these problems. If Kerry believes the correct way is through voluntary, social means, then I am completely with her. If, on the other hand, she thinks that the law should step in, then I agree with Todd that her views are incompatible with libertarianism.
As for Will Wilkinson, I do not quite know what to make of him. He is obviously very smart. He has written gloriously intelligent posts in the past — like this one — that are logically and intellectually perfect. He has, on multiple occasions, authored passionate defences of libertarianism such as this post from only a few weeks back. He has also written sentences like this:
[If libertarianism is the view] that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian.
which convince me that in his moral core he is not a libertarian but a liberal; it is only his impeccable analysis that so often lead him to libertarian solutions. I guess I’ll still take the bargain!
All this of course, reminds me of this gem of an anecdote by Milton Friedman:
I particularly recall a discussion [by a group of libertarian economists] on this issue, in the middle of which Ludwig Von Mises stood up, announded to the assembly “You are all a bunch of socialists”, and stormed out of the group.