Monday, February 06, 2006

Is It True that a Cynic is Just a Realistic Optimist?

One thing that strikes me about libertarianism is that it seems premised on the belief (and I may be misunderstanding, so jump in if I am) that individuals, when left to their own devices, and given a free market to operate in, will naturally act in their own self-interest. This is, I'll admit, one of the reasons I'm having trouble understanding how people who call themselves Christian Libertarians reconcile those two things. If people are inherently bad and need redemption through Jesus, how can letting them act in their own self-interest be a good thing? I'm not asking to be petulant; I really don't get this and I think if someone could explain it, I'd totally have a lightbulb moment. But, setting aside the Christian Libertarians for a moment, I remain fascinated by how hopeful the libertarian philosophy seems to be about the nature of humanity. Will people, if given the chance, act in their own self-interest? I think here's where we get into the deep misunderstanding I have about what libertarians mean by "individual." It seems to me that they mean "each person as utterly distinct from each other person." But, clearly, there are all kinds of ways that we perceive ourselves as parts of larger groups. I mean, look at the whole 'alpha male' discussion. That discussion makes no sense unless we all understand that men perceive themselves to be in relation to each other in some way and that many of them want to be in positions of power within those relationships. And, from the moment we're aware of ourselves as beings, we're aware of ourselves in relationship to other beings--family, community, etc. And, clearly, people will act in ways that are not in their own self-interests if they perceive it to be necessary to the well-being of the group. As well as not perceiving myself as utterly distinct from the people around me (though, there are days when I wish it was so), I also wonder what libertarians do in the face of children. Let's simplify the libertarian creed to "I do what I want as long as it doesn't prevent you from doing what you want--and visa versa." (Fair enough?) And let's say that most things are now privatized. There's no public aid, there's no Head Start, there's no public schools, even. And taxes are exceedingly low because no one pays the government to fund any social programs. Now, let's say that there's a five year old kid whose dad is gone and whose mom is on drugs. All of her money goes to drugs, except for food and rent money. But, she wants her kid to stay with her. So, she won't voluntarily give the kid up. But she won't spend her own money to send the kid to school. The child cannot, obviously, afford to go to school himself. He's a kid. He's got no income. Do libertarians let the child suffer? If so, why do the woman's rights take precedence over the rights of the child? If not, how can you justify taking the resources of the woman and assigning them to the child? And, once you've said that a parent has an obligation to take care of his or her offspring, aren't you acknowledging that we aren't individuals utterly distinct from the people around us but are also important parts of groups to which's well-fare we contribute?* I'm more and more convinced that libertarianism is a really important strain of political thought. And I believe that they're right about many of the ways that the government oversteps its bounds and barges into our lives. But I'm nervous about their unabashed faith in human nature--this belief that we'd all act in our own best interest if we could--and I can't believe that I'm not a part of groups to which I owe my loyalty and it to me. I just can't overcome that. *Something is hinky about that sentence, but I can't figure out how to fix it. I hope you see what I mean.

24 Comments:

Blogger Kat Coble said...

Do libertarians let the child suffer?

Sure. If they want to. Hundreds of thousands will by default because they won't even know about Hy Pothetical.

But, if some libertarian who knows little Hy and wants to see his situation bettered decides of his own accord that he will get food, clothes and an education for Hy, then presto. Problem solved.

Not entirely able to speak for all Christian libertarians, I would also use this example to answer your first question.

Letting people act in their own self-interest is a measure of respect for a person's individuality. They won't always make the most responsible choices. I sometimes eat nothing but brownies for dinner. I live with the consequences (fat ass, sugar high) but I made the choice. I'm an adult.

However, I don't expect you to bail me out for my choice. If I need special pants for my fat butt I'm not going to ask you to buy them for me. If I choose to smoke crack, wither and die, I bear sole responsibility for my death.

That's the libertarian part.

I've written here before about the acknowledgement that there are issues in life that are some combination of choice and circumstance. The Christian libertarian acknowledges that both choice and circumstance play a role in consequence, and attempts to ameliorate negative consequences wherever and whenever possible.

The point of Christian libertarianism is the realisation that people will occasionally need help. I personally believe that the government has not proven competent to administer help. The money they take (I would say " by force") to "Help" is spent largely on bureacracy. Coalitions of the like-willed are much better at aiding those who need it.

When the government screws up and gives large buckets of money to The Robert Byrd Miniature Railroad Memorial Museum, the individual has no recourse. You can't just say "I will now give my $500/month to the Salvation Army." Under libertarian structures you can more freely do that.

And, once you've said that a parent has an obligation to take care of his or her offspring, aren't you acknowledging that we aren't individuals utterly distinct from the people around us but are also important parts of groups to which's well-fare we contribute?*


I think both Exador and I answered this last week, but I get it's the most sticky wicket in libertarianism, so here goes:

You are tied to those individuals with whom you acknowledge a free association. Parents who have children are tied to those children. People who engage in a business transaction are tied, in a limited way, to the others within the transaction.
People who marry are tied to the person they wed.

The libertarian neighbor of Hy Pothetical who buys the kid some food, clothes and shoes has decided to engage in free and fair association with the child and oversee his education. So he is tied to Hy. Of his own accord.

He doesn't have the government coming to him and threatening loss of liberty and property in exchange for funds--some small portion of which will be used to educate Hy, with the rest going to build the Redbird Museum in Downy, Idaho and pay the hefty retirement packages for Congress.

2/06/2006 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

So would the special pants you require after the brownie diet be called "Not So Tiny Kat Pants"?

Per the PJ O'Rourke book I haven't loaned you yet, B, the two main tenets of libertarianism are:
1) Mind your own business.
2) Keep you hands to yourself.

If you choose to take in young Hy as your ward, (perhaps to fight crime with, perhaps not)that is a choice that you have made to help the kid. The option is to have tax money removed from you and given to the crack whore mom who has not shown that she will do anything with the money to help the kid, rather she will continue to use the government largesse to continue on with her crack-whorin'.

Which system sounds like it is looking out for the rights of little Hy?

2/06/2006 01:21:00 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

So would the special pants you require after the brownie diet be called "Not So Tiny Kat Pants"?

8-)

In polite society, yes.

The good thing is that it doesn't cost $5K to take a picture of me with my Not So Tiny Kat Pants.

2/06/2006 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger Exador said...

To me, a big part of libertarianism comes down to free will vs force. Everything the government does, it does with implied force. The difference between the gov't and the people in general, is that the gov't can legally use force to achieve its goals.
Libertarians aren't against charity or helping little Hy, they just don't want a gun put to their head, since that is theft, not charity.

2/06/2006 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger cafiend said...

But the gun to the head raises the issue of private force being used to coerce. If no law enforcement is provided, citizen groups making up their own rules will provide law and order, no?

Furthermore, if we instituted complete laissez-faire economics tomorrow, the existing rich would have a considerable advantage over those who had yet to attain wealth. The only fair way to start would be to take all the wealth we have now and divide it equally among all adults and then step back and let the free world and free market roll. There's no way to ease into it.

Many of the problems we have now are the result of compromises, trying to mix a little of this political philosophy with a little of that, because not everyone wants to do things the same way. And a person's self interest may change markedly in the course of time.

I don't know how many people would have the patience for all the argument that would accompany any attempt to convince people where their beter interest might lie. Too many people prefer not to think, but there's no quick and gentle way to get them out of the way. And the direct rough ways can make quite a mess.

2/06/2006 03:04:00 PM  
Anonymous brittney said...

Do libertarians let the child suffer?

Sure. If they want to. Hundreds of thousands will by default because they won't even know about Hy Pothetical.

But, if some libertarian who knows little Hy and wants to see his situation bettered decides of his own accord that he will get food, clothes and an education for Hy, then presto. Problem solved.


Except that isn't problem solved. Until libertarians are helping every Hy there is that problem remains unsolved.

2/06/2006 03:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris Wage said...

But, setting aside the Christian Libertarians for a moment, I remain fascinated by how hopeful the libertarian philosophy seems to be about the nature of humanity.

Will people, if given the chance, act in their own self-interest?


I actually have been meaning to write a longer post along these lines, but the bite-sized paraphrasal would be this: Libertarianism does not mean people only acting in their own self-interest, at least not necessarily via the detriment of others.

Libertarianism at its core is opposed to coercion, not cooperation.

The fallacy in saying "libertarianism is unrealistic because of human nature" is assuming that there's such a thing as a "human nature".

Specifically, it ties back to a completely bullshit Hobbesian fiction that there's some sort of "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" essence of human nature that we need the government to protect us from degenerating into.

This is precisely why your question about the contradiction in Christian libertarianism is spot-on. Though, the Christian Libertarian might respond that the Christian religion itself is coercion enough to supplant the state. At that point, you'd presumably get into a discussion of why that coercion is okay, but statism is not, but anyways, I digress.

The reality is that humans are social animals, and they don't need authoritarian coercion to induce cooperation. The human species got along fine for millenia before the invention of the modern political state. So the criticism of libertarianism that we'll fall into some sort of postapocalyptic "every man for himself" Mad Maxx world without statism is bunk.

2/06/2006 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

I don't know how many people would have the patience for all the argument that would accompany any attempt to convince people where their beter interest might lie.

Pretty sure we go through exactly that argument every four years.

Too many people prefer not to think, but there's no quick and gentle way to get them out of the way. And the direct rough ways can make quite a mess.

The quick and gentle way is through the television. If people are too wrapped up with what is going on with Bennifer, Brangelina, Tomkat and that poor white trash Spears kid, they won't pay attention to what is being done with their tax dollars.

2/06/2006 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger Church Secretary said...

Everything the government does, it does with implied force. The difference between the gov't and the people in general, is that the gov't can legally use force to achieve its goals.

However, as Cafiend's analysis implies, Exador, what happens when that 'threat' of 'governmental force' is removed? Would you be comfortable with the anarchy that would result from that sort of 'freedom'? Complaints about the existence of taxation are, in my view, quite childish. Complaints about how taxes are collected and spent can be quite constructive.

This is a very large country, and it is one that consumes more than its share of the world's resources (4% of the people, 30% of the stuff). How do you think we got into this position? It was through force and the threat of force. To enjoy a share of the wealth accumulated through force, then to complain about paying the cost of maintaining the system of government that wields that force, well, that's not very mature.

I'll be the first one to stand up and say that this country has a shitload of problems, and the collection and disbursement of tax revenue is one of them. However, if you're not happy paying the bills of empire, you could try living at the other end of the imperial spectrum. Perhaps a tax-free existence in rural Afghanistan might tickle your fancy.

2/06/2006 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Chris! There's my lightbulb moment. Okay, I totally get that. Probably everyone else has been saying it as well, but you've put it in a way that makes sense to me.

So, now Exador's "don't steal my money; don't coerce me" stance makes sense.

Church Secretary, that may be the first time in my entire life I've ever heard a liberal make the "If you don't like it, leave" argument. Have you been secretly listenting to country music?

2/06/2006 03:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

I knew it!
Church Secretary is really Toby Keith! It all makes sense now.

What is really childishy (new word) is the assertion that the libertarian ideal is to abolish all taxation or to make all drugs legal. That certainly makes dismissing it as an ideology awfully easy, now don't it?

The Libertarian party may advocate nutty things like pay-per-police call, but most folks who are on the libertarian bandwagon are more closely aligned with Classical Liberalism. Y'know before liberal became a dirty word.

From the oft-maligned Wikipedia:
Classical liberalism focuses on concepts of individual autonomy and private property, and argues that the sole legitimate function of government is to defend these. Classical liberals promote the use of precisely delineated constitutions that are difficult or impossible to modify, intended to prevent governments from assuming an interventionist role.

The term "classical liberalism" itself was coined in the 20th century, and applied retroactively to pre-1850 liberalism, to avoid confusion with an accepted modern definition of liberalism. Modern libertarians see themselves as having revived the original doctrine of liberalism, and often call themselves "libertarians", "classical liberals" or "market liberals" interchangeably.

2/06/2006 03:40:00 PM  
Blogger observer said...

"The quick and gentle way is through the television. If people are too wrapped up with what is going on with Bennifer, Brangelina, Tomkat and that poor white trash Spears kid, they won't pay attention to what is being done with their tax dollars."

How many people choose to watch C-Span or the drier news programs on public television? I suppose if we yanked the choice of trash television away they would have to watch the more informative stuff. Or you might try to package the informative stuff more entertainingly, but that can't help slanting it.

The fairest way to provide information would be a scrolling index of topics from which the viewer could choose what stories to view in an order based on individual priority. Otherwise you have to have a programming director making value judgements just to fill the time slot. Prime time is called that for a reason.

The argument we go through every four years is a prime example of the difficulty of dealing with all the issues of substance in a relatively short time with an electorate that has ADD. Four years may seem like a very long time to have an asshole for a president (and every president is an asshole to SOMEBODY), but it's no time at all when you consider the plethora of problems a head of state has to at least pretend to deal with, and the distraction of keeping voters somewhat happy when the results don't live up to the campaign hype.

2/06/2006 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

I'll be the first one to stand up and say that this country has a shitload of problems, and the collection and disbursement of tax revenue is one of them.

Any of us libertarians probably agrees with you more than you know.

It isn't the supporting of the infrastructure we mind. It's how that support is gleaned from the citizenry, and how much of what is gleaned is mismanaged.

2/06/2006 03:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris Wage said...

Political ideologies in general would be a lot easier if people didn't keep co-opting terms and applying them incorrectly to prevent themselves from seeming crazy.

2/06/2006 03:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

The "fairest" way to present the news is exactly how it is presented now.

People have the CHOICE to be informed, entertained or both. Most choose the opiate of entertainment. If you don't like what some "program director" has chosen, change the channel.

2/06/2006 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger Exador said...

if you're not happy paying the bills of empire, you could try living at the other end of the imperial spectrum. Perhaps a tax-free existence in rural Afghanistan might tickle your fancy.

As soon as my 401k's grow enough, I'll be buying a small castle in Costa Rica, complete with serfs and serfjoritas to lord over.

2/06/2006 03:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris Wage said...

By the way, Aunt B, and anyone else, there's an interesting thread of conversation on this post that by chance I read last night in the bathtub (yes, this is what I do for fun)

It sorta touches on your dilemma about libertarianism.. Kevin Carson goes back and forth with some libertarian-haters in defending his uncommon but attractive brand of individual anarchism (mutualism).

2/06/2006 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

And right before that, I will be buying stock in Off!.

2/06/2006 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

I love having a nice serfjorita right before dinner.

2/06/2006 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Speaking of fun to eat things, Sarcastro, I saw this and thought of you.

2/06/2006 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger Mr. Mack said...

And, clearly, people will act in ways that are not in their own self-interests if they perceive it to be necessary to the well-being of the group.

Yes, enlightened people will, but I have to think this more about some "cellular" understanding that what's good for the group is ultimately best for the individual as well.

Church secretary nailed it regarding the taxation protests. Of course we all want to rail against pork projects and other waste, cuz that's the easy thing to do. The other thing is to acknowledge that the Govt plays an important role in all of our lives, and we should step back and admire it for what it can do, properly managed. Then hire people who properly manage it. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

2/06/2006 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger Sarcastro said...

Well, I would say that proves that Buddhism is a load of shit.

2/06/2006 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Penny said...

Will people, if given the chance, act in their own self-interest?

The elections of 2000 and 2004 suggest otherwise.

2/06/2006 04:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The elections of 2000 and 2004 suggest otherwise.
Nah. They just suggest that some people may feel their own self interest is different from your own.

w

2/06/2006 06:43:00 PM  

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