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Posts Tagged ‘libertarian’

I often write about politicians running for office but I am rarely really excited about any of them. (When I say really excited, I mean excited enough to donate serious money, and passionately hope, and perhaps volunteer, and do everything else I can to help them win.)

A little clarification here: I am talking of serious politicians here, not someone who is eloquent and thoughtful but with no political skills or chance of winning.

With that prologue, let me talk of Gary Johnson.

He is a serious politician. He was twice elected governor of New Mexico where he, by all accounts, did an excellent job and still enjoys remarkable popularity in that state. He is a republican in the Ron Paul libertarian mould, only much better, for unlike Paul, he is also pro-immigration and pro-choice. He is as libertarian as a mainstream American politician can get.

According to insiders, he is  running for President in 2012.

Now, I am a guy who knows both probabilities and American politics very well — I won about $500 over the last few months betting on various outcomes of the midterm elections on the futures market site Intrade — and Gary Johnson, plainly speaking, is very very unlikely to win. But yet his win, while very very unlikely, is not so unlikely as to not excite me. And besides, the thought of him winning even one primary, and possibly being on a nationally televised debate with the rest of the lot excites me. I mean really, really excites me.

Here’s a very nice profile of Gary Johnson at the New Republic.

An excerpt from the article linked above:

Ask about church, and he says he doesn’t go. “Do you believe in Jesus?” I ask. “I believe he lived,” he replies with a smile. Ask about shifts in position, and he owns up to one. “I changed my mind on the death penalty,” he tells me. “Naïvely, I really didn’t think the government made mistakes.” Ask about his voting history, and he volunteers (without regrets) that he cast his first presidential ballot for George McGovern (“because of the war”). Ask about his longstanding support for marijuana legalization, and he recalls the joy of his pot-smoking days. “I never exhaled,” he says. (An avid athlete, Johnson forswore marijuana and alcohol decades ago when he realized they were hurting his ski times and rock-climbing ability.)

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A pretty fair article by Ed Kilgore on the widening rift between progressives and libertarians.

One mini-saga of the past decade in American politics has been the flirtation—with talk of a deeper partnership—between progressives and libertarians. These two groups were driven together, in the main, by common hostility to huge chunks of the Bush administration’s agenda: endless, pointless wars; assaults on civil liberties; cynical vote-buying with federal dollars; and statist panders to the Christian right.

This cooperation reached its height during the 2006 election, in which, according to a new study by David Kirby and David Boaz, nearly half of libertarian voters supported Democratic congressional candidates—more than doubling the support levels from the previous midterm election in 2002.

Well, you can say goodbye to all that. The new Kirby/Boaz study reports that libertarian support for Democrats collapsed in 2008, despite many early favorable assessments of Barack Obama by libertarian commentators. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has raised the salience of issues on which libertarians and Dems most disagree. And there’s no question that during Obama’s first year—with the rise of the Tea Party movement and national debate over bailouts, deficits, and health care—libertarian hostility to the new administration has grown adamant and virtually universal.

[…]

So could “liberaltarianism” make a comeback in a not-too-distant future, when today’s passions have abated? You never know for sure, but the next major obstacle to cooperation may well be the Supreme Court’s decision on corporate political spending in Citizens United v. FEC, which libertarians celebrated as a victory for free speech, and most liberals denounced as a travesty if not a national disaster.

Cancel the Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers; this romance is dead.

I agree that “liberaltarianism” is kinda dead at the moment. Ed Kilgore thinks that progressives shouldn’t mind that too much. I disagree with his reasoning.

But 2008 showed that libertarian support is hardly crucial: Obama still won “libertarian” states such as Colorado and New Hampshire handily, even without their backing, and he generally performed better in the “libertarian West” than any Democratic nominee since LBJ.

I am sceptical of the claim that Obama lacked the backing of libertarians. Yes the Kirby-Boaz paper does say that McCain won libertarians about 70-30, but I suspect that study  oversamples southern conservatives. It is unfortunate they do not have a state-by state cross-tabs, which would give some indication how the libertarians voted in Colorado and New Hampshire. Moreover, even Kirby-Boaz conclude that Obama won the younger libertarians, the ones who will really matter in future elections.

True, most libertarians disagreed with large parts of the Obama agenda, but they also typically thought that McCain was far, far worse. Reason magazine’s survey of its writers in 2008 showed almost no support for McCain, almost everyone supported Obama or Barr. A majority of libertarian intellectuals, despite their misgivings, certainly preferred Obama over McCain.

Many of these people are now turning away from the Democrats. Kilgore is probably right about the inevitability of this break-up. From the point of view of electoral politics, however, the Democrats will ignore the libertarian vote at their own peril.

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Todd Seavey and Kerry Howley (joined by Dan MacCarthy) continue their debate of whether libertarianism should include concern for more than just property rights. Its an old debate, one that Seavey and Howley have had in the past in their respective blogs, and one I have commented on extensively earlier, so there’s nothing much to really add. There’s one point — it struck me then, and it strikes me now — that however, I should reiterate.

Kerry at one point writes: “None of this is to say that it is the state’s place to force a family to accept its children, a church to welcome all comers, or a sex worker to embrace all lonely hearts. There is a difference between emotional coercion and physical force.” I am glad. If Kerry actually advocated using laws to overcome social pressures, I would have to stop calling her a libertarian.

But then, the reader could be forgiven for wondering what really are these guys arguing about. As Todd says: “There’s a vast universe of moral and philosophical judgments beyond libertarianism, and one of the beauties of the philosophy is that it leaves people free to debate those countless other matters without breaking the minimal ground rule of respecting one another’s rights.” If Todd agrees that a libertarian may validly  advocate for all the things Kerry wants (as long as they do not insist that it be included in the libertarian canon) and Kerry agrees that all the things she wants ought not to be coercively imposed, it seems to me that these people are speaking a bit past each other, or at the very least, their debate is more semantical than substantive.

No, I am not saying that there isn’t a disagreement, merely that the disagreement (Kerry: Libertarians should combat more than state tyranny, though not through the legal route; Todd: It is perfectly fine for libertarians to combat social tyranny by social means, though we should not mandate it as a part of libertarianism) is not as wide as the debate might make it seem to be. Todd’s position (which I completely agree with, by the way) doesn’t really seem to counter Kerry as much as some other straw-woman who wants to break apart racist, homophobic or patriarchal conventions by force. Kerry’s counter-reply also seems mildly oblivious to Todd’s position. I share Kerry’s concerns and I agree with Todd’s position. Isn’t that a little funny?

But anyway, those who aren’t steeped in this subject too thoroughly should really read the Reason article; Howley, Seavey and McCarthy are all fine writers, and they make all the points worth making. Also you may wish to glance at Ilya Somin’s take on the issue.

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Will Wikinson says:

Yet I hear again and again that, since the state should not be in the business of marriage, one should not, as a libertarian, have an opinion about how this business is to be carried out. Increasingly, I find this an obnoxious and shameful form of moral recusal. One cannot use an ideological image of perfect justice to excuse or ignore an obvious injustice within the actual imperfect system. That these injustices could not arise within one’s vision of the best society does not mean that they have not in fact arisen. That a debate would not occur in an ideal world does not mean that it is not occuring or that nothing morally hangs on its conclusion. To decide to sit out the debate, with an eye on utopia, is not a way to keep one’s hands clean.

I agree.

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(Followup to Domestic violence and consent)

In this post, I intend to discuss and clarify some issues related to violence and consent. For the most part, I will take for granted the libertarian philosophy of non-interference in any consensual act and explore some of the ramifications of this position with regard to acts of domestic violence. Of course, a lot of people do not attach a great deal of value to the idea that governments should not interfere in the consensual private affairs of adults. I am under no impression that my arguments will change their minds and so this post is not addressed at them. My goals are much more modest; if you are favourable to legalized gambling, prostitution, sexual freedom and so forth, in short if you are something of a social libertarian, then I hope to convince you that current domestic violence laws are contrary to your principles. I will also use my discussion on domestic violence as a launch-pad to say a few things about violence and consent in general.

Why focus on domestic violence first? Well, apart from the fact that this issue is topical, there are several factors that make domestic violence different from other types of violence. Violence is generally thought of as bad and private relationships as sacred. And as far as libertarianism goes, both of these are particularly important concepts: the non aggression principle appears to simultaneously forbid violence and protect private affairs from external interference. So a discussion of domestic violence laws, which govern the realm where privacy and violence intersect, is definitely a worthwhile endeavour.

Secondly, societal as well as legal attitudes towards domestic violence cases has undergone a sea change over the last hundred years. In the early part of the twentieth century, police often refused to register domestic violence complaints. Domestic violence was viewed as a mostly private matter and even vicious physical attacks rarely resulted in jail time. Victims, usually the wives, had a hard time convincing law enforcement to come to their aid — even when they did, the abuser was usually let off very soon.

Today on the other hand, the pendulum has swing to the other extreme. Many US states follow a mandatory arrest policy, where police can arrive at the scene of a fight on a simple call from a neighbour and once they do so, they are usually bound to arrest one of the parties. The ‘victim’s’ wishes are not respected. She might tell the police officer that it was mutual, or consensual, or a family matter; he would still be arrested if the policeman finds the slightest sign of violence. Making matters worse is the current system where such cases as treated as crimes against the state rather than the victim. Thus, once charges are filed, the victim cannot ‘drop them’ — she is treated merely as a witness, it is up to the state whether or not to respect her wishes regarding the fate of her alleged abuser.

Both approaches are wrong, because they ignore the crucial ingredient that defines a crime — lack of consent.

As I wrote in my earlier post:

Theft is a crime only because it is involves takings without permission. If I take my friend’s car keys and go for a spin without asking him and he later finds out about it and gets mad, he has every right to demand legal redress. However if he is perfectly ok with my disappearing act, it would be laughable to suggest that the law should override his wishes and punish me.

Rape is prosecuted not because it involves force or sex but because one of the parties has not consented to the act. Many birthday parties in India involve birthday bumps, where the special person is hoisted in the air and roundly smacked around. It is a violent act, but all good-natured and fun. However if you give bumps to a person despite his protests and he later goes and complains to the police, you will surely be charged with at least a misdemeanour assault.

For there to be a crime, there has to be a victim. The fundamental premise of libertarian jurisprudence is that there are no victimless crimes. And it is consent  alone that determines if there is a victim. Undoubtedly, in cases like murder where the victim can no longer testify, or cases involving abuse of children or the mentally disabled, the law is perfectly justified in presuming their victim-hood. However, when two adults are involved, their is no need for the law to make such value judgements. 

What people consent to is their business. When society imposes its fiat on such a matter, it infantilizes the parties involved.

Is violence necessarily bad? Simple surgery involves violence and bloodshed. A typical response to this example might be that surgery is done at the request of the victim and it serves a good purpose. Surely violence with the intent to hurt is an entirely different matter? But what then of boxing, professional wrestling and UFC? They involve people trying their best to hurt each other. Ok, but such sports are regulated affairs. But then what about violent sex or BDSM? Should the government outlaw them?

The correct libertarian response is that violence is wrong only if it is non-consensual. And if you agree with that response and support current domestic violence laws, I think there is a significant tension in your worldview.

First of all let’s consider the case where a couple has an explicit agreement that it is ok for their fights to get physical. That does not mean they welcome or like the violence, any more than they like non-violent fights such as verbal arguments or emotional attacks. It does not mean that the person(s) getting hit does not try to stop the attacker or does not hit back. It simply means that they think that an argument leading to a slap or a shove could occur in extreme circumstances and if so, they vow not to get the authorities involved. In short they think of it as a private matter just as name-calling or emotional blackmail is generally accepted to be. To make matters more explicit and sensible, they may even agree upon a last resort ‘safe-word’, which if uttered, would compel the attacker to stop hitting, failing which consent would automatically be withdrawn by the victim and the police justifiably called upon.

I presume that most social libertarians would be okay with the above setup. Let us, however examine the above scenario in more depth.

It is worth noting that consent in the above case is not to the particular slap or shove but to a general lifestyle where it is ok to do those things. Now, suppose I am a police officer and I catch a couple physically fighting. They claim consent in the above sense. I say it is clearly non-consensual because they are trying to hurt each other, defending themselves from the other and trying to stop the other from hitting. I might even say that I heard her tell him to stop (this is different from uttering the safe word, which would be an act of last resort).

All of my arguments would however be flawed as all of those things are part of their agreement! A simple comparison with the boxing/wrestling/BDSM example might be enlightening.

This example already shows how difficult it would be to disprove a consent defence like the above; it would be as hard (and yes, as unwelcome) as trying to police a thought crime. It also shows that intent is irrelevant to such a case, as are physical evidences like bruises.

Now, most couples do not have such an explicit agreement. So let’s take a modified scenario, the one that essentially seems to have happened between Rihanna and Chris Brown.

Chris Brown hit Rihanna (it is unclear who provoked whom) and she was left with visible but not life-threatening injuries. The police came on the scene and the next day Brown turned himself over. However, Rihanna had a change of heart and forgave him. The couple reconciled and she refused to testify against him. She now wants the charges dropped and in fact, it seems that she might even testify in his defence if he is prosecuted. The district attorney and the police however, seem set to try and prosecute Brown.

Does Rihanna not wanting Brown charged make her a consenter? Indeed it does, not to the blows that Brown gave her, but to a lifestyle in which their private boundaries are extended, where hitting her is unwelcome perhaps but where she prefers it be dealt with privately by them and not by the law. In effect she is saying exactly what my hypothetical couple in the above example are saying: leave us alone. Is there a difference at all between the two cases?

Actually there is. Rihanna and Brown did not probably have an explicit agreement of that nature before the physical violence. In short this is a case of ex-post facto consent. But should that make it any less valid?

It is a general principle of ethics (and common sense) that our later views and positions, formed after more time, experience and evidence, ought to rightfully occupy a superior position vis-a-vis our earlier or more premature ones. Let me relate two examples. The first is the case where I take my friend’s car for a drive without his permission. Clearly I do so without his consent. You might say that if he knew, he would have consented. That may very well be true, but let us assume he does not know who took the car, comes home and sees the keys gone and gets very angry. However I come back soon and because I am his friend, he forgives me and we have a laugh about the whole episode. 

Or take another example, where I arrange for my girlfriend to be kidnapped (slightly violent, and obviously without consent) by some hired men. She is terrified for a while but then the kidnappers take her to the island of her dreams where I am waiting to propose to her with a diamond ring (forgive the cliches for a moment). She is overjoyed and not just forgives my daring scheme but in fact agrees to marry me instantly.

Both these are cases of ex post facto consent to what originally might have seemed as a violation to them. Most people would agree it would be ridiculous for the police to override the ‘victim’s’ wishes in either case and prosecute me. Yes, in both cases, initially there was lack of full information. However, that is hardly relevant, the crucial point is that on further deliberation, the victim changed his or her mind. And besides one could always argue that Chris Brown’s behavior after the act gave Rihanna new ‘information’ about his true nature. Thus information is not really the point here and the point is simple; in all three cases (car, island, Rihanna) one of the parties insisted in the end that she does not consider herself a victim. And if in any of these cases, the state decides to go ahead and prosecute the alleged ‘victimizer’, it means they are prosecuting a victimless crime.

There is another, pragmatic reason why if one agrees that (pre–fact) consent is a valid defence, then one should consider ex post facto consent equally valid. It is virtually impossible for the authorities to prove that consent was ex post facto if the victim claims it was not. So if Rihanna decides to tell the court that she and Brown had an agreement of the sort I described, there is no way she can be disproved beyond doubt. Right now, the police are using her bruised photograph as evidence to prosecute Brown, but that would be useless under this defence. Even any statement she might have given to the police would not really be useful, because she could always say that she said those in the heat of the moment but in reality she did not think his behavior crosses their privately defined boundary. 

The simplest and most just approach in all cases of violence by one citizen on another then is this: treat them as crimes against the person (provided the person is alive and able to articulate his or her wishes) rather than the state and drop those charges if the person does not want the accused punished. Anything else, as a commenter wrote in my previous post, is a mockery of justice. (Or at any rate, this is what you ought to believe if you subscribe to libertarian principles on social issues.)

The above arguments are mostly philosophical, grounded on individual liberty. However, there are some people who agree morally that consent, both before the act and after, ought to be an absolute defence against acts of violence but support the status quo on pragmatic grounds. They think that if the victim is allowed to drop the case, many will be intimidated to do so. But even if that were true, surely the obvious solution is to protect the victim from intimidation or reprisal! Laws that provide strong deterrence and efficient justice in the case of a violation, a system where it is easy to file cases, obtain no-contact orders and get police protection, where the victims know that the police is fighting for them, not against their wishes — will provide far more security from intimidation than one where the victim’s wishes are not respected.

A case in point is the mandatory reporting law that exists in a few states: any domestic violence injury must be reported to the police by the physician. The funny part is that women who have never been abused support the law by a 70-30 margin while among women who have been abused in the past and have thus reaped the benefit of the law, the aupport drops to 55-45. This fact and others are laid out in this paper by three medical researchers who explore the effects of such mandatory laws. Their recommendation? At the least, “the efficacy of mandatory reporting of domestic violence to police should be further assessed, and policymakers should consider options that include consent of patients before wider implementation”, they think.

The same is true for other laws of a similar nature: mandatory arrests, inability of the victim to unilaterally cancel a no-contact order, etc. Thus, even on pragmatic grounds, there is little rationale behind laws like these which do not value the consent of the alleged victim. At any rate, even if a law like that did some good, there are always alternate pragmatic solutions that preserve liberty and serve the same purpose, that is protect victims from intimidation or coercion.

And if anyone thinks I am raising too much hue and cry defending wife-beaters and other scum, all I can say is, if you  believe in a principle, you are bound to defend it in all cases, including the unpleasant ones. Freedom of speech entails defending the right to disseminate hate speech. Freedom of association entails defending the rights of bigots to not employ or serve those who they irrationally hate. And if privacy and consent are worthy principles, one must also defend the right to indulge in private consensual behavior we would not personally approve of.

Besides, if one is willing to make exceptions to these principles in such cases or if one takes the view that certain kinds of violence are (absolutely) bad or that the state can rightfully define victimhood without regard to the wishes of the ‘victim’, then governments might some day start categorizing even non-violent consensual behavior, such as prostitution, as violence against the woman and using that as justification to outlaw it. Oh wait, they already did that!

But then, the law has never really treated the consent principle with anywhere near the respect libertarians think it deserves. In most jurisdiction, one cannot consent to harm to self beyond a certain point unless the act is strictly regulated, such as sports. This has led to paradoxical situations where severely hurtful consensual behavior is sometimes allowed (think ultimate fighting, or some extreme sports) while relatively less dangerous behavior is outlawed. An excellent reference for such examples is the paper Sex is not a Sport: Consent and Violence in Criminal Law. The author, who chooses to focus particularly on examples related to sports and sadomasochism does not exactly subscribe to the libertarian principle of absolute non-interference in private matters, indeed she takes the opposing view that governments have a legitimate interest in controlling violence. Nevertheless I think it is a worthy read.

I think this passage is particularly noteworthy:

Historically, under the common law, violence, even if consensual, was illegal. Thus, consent was no defense when one engaged in an activity that could cause physical injury or death, even if the “victim” did not complain. Assaultive behavior is criminal behavior, as the wrongdoer infringes upon and threatens the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The victim is merely a witness for the prosecution. Yet, courts have carved out exceptions to this general rule on a case-by-case basis. In this section, I review the Anglo-American history of consensual violence in the sporting context, drawing primarily from English, Canadian and American jurisprudence. Although few American appellate courts have examined the doctrine of consensual violence, both the Canadian Supreme Court and the British House of Lords have taken up the issue in the last decade. Thus, American legal scholars can benefit from the experiences of our common law cousins in this area.

When discussing the issue of consensual violence, it is quite common for commentators to assume that courts use the “harm test” to decide the relevancy of consent—the more likely injury is to occur, the less likely a court will allow the activity. In 1895, for example, in the first American article to examine the issue of violence and consent within the criminal law, the Harvard Law Review summarized the doctrine of violent consent. “A game which involves physical struggle may [be] a commendable and manly sport, or it may be an illegal contest in which the participants are or may become criminals; this depends on whether it is a game which endangers life.” The premise was that the level of injury inherent to the activity is what is crucial to the law.

But courts have allowed all sorts of activities, including prize fighting and hockey, which carry a high probability of injury, and disallowed barroom brawling, which is arguably no more dangerous. In practice, the likelihood of harm is more or less legally irrelevant. What is legally relevant is the social utility of the activity itself. The law clearly distinguished between those contexts in which men competed to enhance their manliness and those contexts in which their aggression went unchecked, or inspired runaway passion by the parties or observers. Instrumental violence—that which serves a “manly” purpose—is legal, but expressive, emotional violence, which carries with it too high a risk of social unrest, is not. Thus, lawmakers have whittled down the playing field, so to speak, by legalizing only those sporting activities that promote what I call civilized masculinity.

She is right. The reason why law treats consent in such an inconsistent and muddled manner is because the majority, through the state, has always tried to outlaw behaviors they disapprove of. So the doctrine that one cannot consent to violence beyond a point (unless it is with regard to a fashionable activity) has less to do with principles and more with a desire to simultaneously preserve the state monopoly on violence, let the powerful majority have fun but keep in check deviants.

But then, I suspect I have fundamental differences with paternalists and public-interest-apologists that logical arguments cannot resolve: how can you possibly disprove someone whose axioms differ from yours? I hope to convince only those who already have a healthy scepticism of government power and a strong respect for individual liberty. And if any of them still believe that the law should recognize victimhood irrespective of consent or the victim’s wishes, I urge them to reconsider.

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Since the new year is still young, I thought I’d share Harry Browne’s New Year’s Resolutions from 2000.
Harry, who passed away in 2006, was the Libertarian candidate for President in 1996 and 2000. He was renowned as a superb communicator and one of the most persuasive advocates for individual liberty and this excellent list gives us some idea why.

  • I resolve to *sell* liberty by appealing to the self-interest of each prospect, rather than *preaching* to people and expecting them to suddenly adopt my ideas of right and wrong.
  • I resolve to keep from being drawn into arguments or debates. My purpose is to inspire people to want liberty — not to prove that they’re wrong.
  • I resolve to *listen* when people tell me of their wants and needs, so I can help them see how a free society will satisfy those needs.
  • I resolve to identify myself, when appropriate, with the social goals someone may seek — a cleaner environment, more help for the poor, a less divisive society — and try to show him that those goals can never be achieved by government, but will be well served in a free society.
  • I resolve to be compassionate and respectful of the beliefs and needs that lead people to seek government help. I don’t have to approve of their subsidies or policies — but if I don’t acknowledge their needs, I have no hope of helping them find a better way to solve their problems.
  • No matter what the issue, I resolve to keep returning to the central point: how much better off the individual will be in a free society.
  • I resolve to acknowledge my good fortune in having been born an American. Any plan for improvement must begin with a recognition of the good things we have. To speak only of America’s defects will make me a tiresome crank.
  • I resolve to focus on the ways America could be so much better with a very small government — not to dwell on all the wrongs that exist today.
  • I resolve to cleanse myself of hate, resentment, and bitterness. Such things steal time and attention from the work that must be done.
  • I resolve to speak, dress, and act in a respectable manner. I may be the first libertarian someone has encountered, and it’s important that he get a good first impression. No one will hear the message if the messenger is unattractive.
  • I resolve to remind myself that someone’s “stupid” opinion may be an opinion I once held. If *I* can grow, why can’t I help *him* grow?
  • I resolve not to raise my voice in any discussion. In a shouting match, no one wins, no one changes his mind, and no one will be inspired to join our quest for a free society.
  • I resolve not to adopt the tactics of Republicans and Democrats. They use character assassination, evasions, and intimidation because they have no real benefits to offer Americans. We, on the other hand, are offering to set people free — and so we can win simply by focusing on the better life our proposals will bring.
  • I resolve to be civil to my opponents and treat them with respect. However anyone chooses to treat me, it’s important that I be a better person than my enemies.
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    (Post updated)

    In my earlier post on this theme, I expressed my opposition to using coercive legal means to advance social goals and my moral abhorrence for laws which censor expression, ban consensual behavior or limit freedom of association. I wrote:

    Any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that laws [which restrict individual liberty] are immoral.

    To give another side of the issue, I am also surprised when people think that it is ‘unlibertarian’ to attempt to modify other people’s behavior — for good or bad — through non-coercive means. A controlling husband who does not want his wife to dance with other men, a guy who ‘makes’  his girlfriend eat healthy foods, a friend who tries to emotionally pressurize you to give up smoking or a lover who makes you give up something you love as a precondition of being with you are not in any way violating the non-aggression principle. Such behavior can be sensible or irrational, helpful or counter-productive but as long as they do not involve actual coercion, they are neither libertarian nor unlibertarian.

    Let me focus on the cases when the controlling behavior is generally seen as bad or unfair. In those examples, the offending party may not often act in an understanding or considerate manner. However they certainly have the right to be inconsiderate. I most definitely have the right to demand that my partner do things in a certain way. The partner also has the right to refuse. At that point, each of us has the right to suggest a compromise, let the other’s wish prevail or end the relationship. As a general principle, I think such controlling behavior is a terrible idea because even if the other person acts as you wish, she will usually resent it and if you do it often enough, end the relationship with you. However, simply because an idea is terrible does not mean it violates another’s liberty. When private, consensual relationships are involved, everyone has the right to stay in it strictly on their terms.

    For instance I would never date a deeply religious person. I would also prefer that my partner’s tastes and convictions are compatible with mine. I might attempt to persuade her to do things in a certain way if they are important to me, even if those things are essentially her personal matter. If the matter is core and non-negotiable, I would even make it clear that we cannot be together if she does not change. These actions may or may not be the best thing for the relationship but they certainly are a natural consequence of my liberty to live my life (which includes my associations and relationships) on the exact terms I wish.

    Libertarianism deals with the legal and the political. The meme that it also governs one’s behavior in a purely social or personal setting  is misguided and display a lack of understanding of the underlying philosophical principles. That is not to say that social and personal behavior is not important or that the pros and cons of a particular kind of behavior should not be discussed; merely that such discussions (or any ethics/principles underlying it) are distinct from the principles that underlie individual liberty. Using pressure and emotional leverage to make a friend change his behavior is fundamentally different from having a law that mandates this behavior change. Social pressure is on an entirely different plane from legal coercion. Friendships, marriages and relationships can be ended by either party for any reason, rational or irrational; an oppressive law can never be escaped from.

    The personal is not the political. Period.

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    If you wish to effectively advance liberty — yes the kind of liberty that I talk about in this blog — or just make a real difference to the life of someone in need, who should you donate to?

    Check out this great list by Radley Balko. Liberty can thrive only if people who care enough about it do something, and surely a check of $25 or so won’t pinch you too much. Radley’s list include key libertarian organizations, charities that actually work and people who have been unjustly persecuted by the state.

    Among the entities that Radley lists, I currently donate to Reason and the Institute for Justice; excellent organizations both. Once I stop being a poor grad student and get a real job (hopefully in six months or so), I hope to significantly expand my giving for liberty. But those of you reading with a real job already, you really have no excuse ;-)

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    I came across this interesting news article today about how liberal prostitution laws are encouraging young Swedes to make a short trip to Denmark.

    In Sweden paying for sex is a crime punishable with a possible six-month jail sentence or a hefty income-linked fine. Perhaps the worst penalty for errant Swedish males is the official court summons addressed to the family home; an embarrassment that has ruptured many marriages. In Denmark, by contrast, prostitution has been decriminalised.

    […]Denmark, proud of its tolerant traditions, has allowed the hippy colony of Christiania to flourish in the heart of Copenhagen since the 1970s. Now Swedish teenagers are taking taxis over the bridge, stopping off at the settlement, stocking up on marijuana, and driving back home.

    The true flashpoint is prostitution. Nothing better highlights how the model Scandinavian societies are now at odds over the correct road to Utopia.

    Of course Denmark is no libertopia. It’s personal income tax rate is among the highest among developed nations.

    However, in this un-free world, the libertarian dilemma is not where one finds freedom but where one finds the freedoms most important to him or her. In my view, paying a little more tax but getting extensive personal freedoms as well as almost complete freedom of speech is a good bargain. Thus, I tend to think of countries like Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland as more libertarian than the USA. The first three of these also have strong laws that favor the right to die and to refuse treatment.

    On the other hand, I have given up all hopes about France and England, which are getting more Orwellian every day.

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    (Post updated)

    I haven’t had time to post much of late but here are excerpts from two posts today that express accurately what I feel about those matters. Isn’t the internet great?

    Todd Seavey on why the ambiguity of property rights at the boundaries does not mean that the concept becomes less important or that we should reject it as the basis of libertarian philosophy:

    Now, a few very bright, well-informed commenters over the past few weeks who consider themselves more or less libertarians have said they think libertarianism is as guilty of being amorphous as feminism (and, crucially, that’s not my biggest complaint about feminism), with one noting that even hardcore anarcho-capitalist David Friedman (son of Milton) points out tough cases such as whether the photons from someone’s flashlight falling upon you constitute trespass. But such examples were meant to address ambiguities in a property rights system, not ambiguity about whether property rights are central to his/our philosophy, as Will Wilkinson at least seems to think is debatable. [..] It’s important to distinguish between saying property rights are 100% rigid and unambiguous (which I’m not really saying) and saying property rights and property rights violations are the central concerns of the philosophy and provide the traditional litmus test for what is or is not considered permissible under a libertarian regime (and this I certainly am saying, as are plenty of other people).

    I couldn’t have put it better. The system of property rights form the moral basis of libertarianism. Like any other system, there are potential intellectual riddles associated with its application to certain areas. The existence of certain complexities and ambiguities at the boundaries of a system does not mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with applying the system in the vast majority of cases where it is well-defined. It simply means that in those extreme cases, a bit of subtlety and intellectual care is needed. (*)

    Next, here is Radley Balko (‘The Agitator’) on the recent ridiculous standoff in Boston where a SWAT team surrounded a woman’s house because she bought too many Christmas presents for the poor. Apparently, they feared she was mentally disturbed.

    We’re seeing this more and more. Mentally unstable people who present an immediate threat to others is one thing. But sending the SWAT teams after someone who’s depressed, or even suicidal, is absurd. Even if Michalosky was contemplating suicide (and it appears she wasn’t), why is that any of the police department’s business? And who thought pointing a bunch of guns at her head would be an appropriate course of treatment?

    Radley’s point, and I whole-heartedly agree, is that even if the police had just cause to believe that she was mentally disturbed (and in this case they didn’t, unless they think philanthropy is a mental disease) they had no business coming after her. As John Stuart Mill put it, the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his or her will, is to prevent harm to others. Period.

    (*) Another example of where property rights become hazy is when we are dealing with a commons (such as the environment) that can be altered by the actions of our private property (such as cars) and that in turn can affect other private property detrimentally (by injecting polluted air into another’s lungs, or by flooding towns). Once again, this is a situation that calls not for abandonment of our freedoms and property rights but for intellectual care. Unlike some other libertarians, I do not doubt that anthropogenic global warming is real; however any solution must strike a balance between the various interests involved, both moral and economic. For instance, systems like cap-and-trade or carbon tax are less freedom restricting than blanket bans or other government mandated strict regulation. Unfortunately, some environmentalists and politicians are prone to making wildly exaggerated claims and advocating coercive methods on this topic. That is destructive — both to liberty and to science.

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    The latest issue of Reason magazine has a long op-ed titled “The Libertarian moment.” Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie make the case that we are at the threshold of a new age of freedom. They cite as evidence relaxing social norms, increased permissiveness and the `soft libertarianism’ that the internet age has spawned.

    I would be happy to be proved wrong but I cannot help feel that this is just a puff piece designed to fit in with Reason’s 40th anniversary. Most of the examples they cite could as easily apply to liberalism. Homosexuality may be getting more acceptable but so is the idea that offending speech ought to be regulated. Marijuana may be easier to find but smoking is much harder. Anti-discrimination laws are becoming wider in scope every day; political correctness more pervasive.  The nanny-state is getting more obscene, government more bloated, the deficit is a monster.

    Even the word libertarianism is under attempted hijack from some who call themselves libertarian, yet fail to see the fundamental difference between negative and positive liberty, and between social pressure and state coercion.

    These are tough times to be a libertarian. Perhaps Welch and Gillespie are right and change is on the way. After all, they say that the darkest hour comes before dawn. Till I see the sun though, I see little reason to believe that things are going to really change anytime soon.

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    In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, Ramesh Srivats explains, in a long but very readable post, why our unrealistically high expectations of what the government ought to do for us leads to a bloated maai-baap sarkar that loves to intrude into matters that are not its business, yet fails to perform its most basic task — keeping us secure. It is mostly standard libertarian fare that has been discussed many times here and elsewhere; but the matter is important enough to merit reiteration. Highly recommended.

    (Hat Tip: Aristotle The Geek)

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    I came across this old post by Tyler Cowen today:

    The libertarian vice is to assume that the quality of government is fixed.  The libertarian also argues that the quality of government is typically low, and this is usually the bone of contention, but that is not the point I wish to consider.  Often that dispute is a red herring.

    If the quality of government is fixed, the battle is then “government vs. market.”  Not everyone will agree with libertarian views, but libertarians are comfortable on this terrain.

    But sometimes governments do a pretty good job, even if you like me are generally skeptical of government.  The Finnish government has supported superb architecture.  The Swedes have made a good go at a welfare state.  The Interstate Highway System in the U.S. was a high-return investment.  In the area of foreign policy, we have done a good job juggling the China-Taiwan relationship.  Or how about the Aswan Dam for Egypt?  You might contest these particular examples but I assure you there are many others.

    Read the whole thing. I think posts like these are important not just because they are accurate but because they define certain paths to rationality ruin that any thinking individual should make sure to avoid.

    Also, I found this bit amusing:

    Libertarianism and modern liberalism differ in many regards, and usually I am closer to the libertarian point of view.  But I am also a contrarian by nature.  If you want to make me feel more like a modern liberal, just go ahead and commit The Libertarian Vice.

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    Sometimes, Tyler Cowen is in a class of his own.

    Via Angus (and do read his snark on TFP), here is Paul Samuelson:

    Libertarians are not just bad emotional cripples. They are also bad advice givers.

    […] When I see people writing sentences of this kind, I imagine them pressing a little button which makes them temporarily less intelligent.  Because, indeed, that is how one’s brain responds when one employs this kind of emotionally charged rhetoric.

    As you go through life and read various writers, I want you to keep this idea of the button in mind.  As you are reading, think “Ah, he [she] is pressing the button now!”

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    1.

    And the moral is not the legal.

    It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

    Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

    As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

    Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

    The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

    […] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

    Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.

    2.

    That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

    In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

    What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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