Libertarian neutrality so-called

John Rawls held that a liberal political order is neutral or impartial in three important senses: First, it treats persons as “ends in themselves” and thus as moral equals entitled to impartial concern; second, it seeks to realize its vision of justice in a way that is neutral between the diverse moral and religious worldviews prevailing among citizens of the society it is to govern; and third, it also neutral between the various alternative philosophical doctrines (liberal and non-liberal) individual political thinkers who could support it might be personally committed to. It rests instead on an “overlapping consensus” between moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines, while nevertheless sustaining a shared sense of justice between them, rather than a mere modus vivendi or truce between hostile factions.

Some libertarian theorists have proposed that their creed is more plausibly neutral or impartial in each of these three senses than egalitarian liberalism is. This idea is at least implicit in the thought of Robert Nozick, who also appeals to the Kantian principle of treating persons as “ends in themselves,” and who argues that a libertarian society constitutes a “framework for utopia” in which individuals and groups committed to wildly divergent moral, religious, and philosophical visions are all “free to do their own thing.” Will Wilkinson has been explicit in making a Rawlsian case for libertarianism, and legal theorist Randy Barnett, who endorses Wilkinson’s position, has presented similar arguments of his own.

My own view is that the “neutrality” of libertarianism is (like that of Rawlsian liberalism) completely bogus. I made the case for this judgment in an exchange with Wilkinson at TCS Daily a few years back (see here, here, and here). I make it at greater length in my paper “Self-Ownership, Libertarianism, and Impartiality,” which was presented at a conference at the University of Reading a few years ago and which is available at my website. Though Barnett is the direct target of most of what is said in the paper, its arguments apply to libertarianism in general, and it is my fullest “official statement” on the subject, for anyone who is interested.

What leads me to raise the issue here is an exchange over libertarianism and culture between Kerry Howley, Todd Seavey, and Daniel McCarthy in the latest (November 2009) issue of Reason magazine (in which, to my surprise, I play a small role as Howley’s and McCarthy’s “Exhibit A” instance of a “culturally right-wing libertarian” who went on to abandon libertarianism altogether).

Howley’s position is that libertarians should aim, not only to reduce governmental power, but also to change social attitudes. For Howley, “not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun.” There is also the “paternalism of the mob” enshrined in “tradition,” “convention,” “culture, conformism, and social structure,” which, even in the absence of the threat of imprisonment, can shore up “patriarchy” and endanger the “acceptance of gays and lesbians” and “the liberty of the pill, of pornography, of 600 channels where once there were three.” In short, for Howley any libertarianism worthy of the name must promote the cultural agenda of the left no less than the economic position of the anti-tax, anti-big government right.

Howley, in effect, abandons any pretense that libertarianism is “neutral” vis-à-vis the competing moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines to be found within a pluralistic society; for libertarianism must favor, in her view, the culturally leftish ones. This will no doubt come as an unhappy surprise to “libertarian neutrality” advocate Wilkinson, who once very charmingly identified Howley for his readers as his “primary oxytocin source”; their pillow talk – or is it biochem laboratory talk? – apparently doesn’t extend to political philosophy. (Then again, like the Rawlsians who are always chatting up their “neutrality” on moral and religious issues while pushing same-sex marriage and abortion on demand, Wilkinson’s writings have never left any doubt as to what he thinks a free society should look like. And it ain’t Malta.)

That is not to say that denying that libertarianism is neutral entails affirming that it must tend toward cultural leftism, specifically. In the last gasp of my own libertarianism, I argued – not implausibly, if I do say so myself – that one could make a strong libertarian case for conservative morals legislation. And Howley hardly makes much of a case for her own position; as Seavey acidly points out, it amounts to little more than the undefended assertion that “freedom’s just another word for Kerry Howley’s preferences.”

The thing is this: Key libertarian concepts like “freedom,” “rights,” “coercion,” “harm,” “self-ownership,” and the like are highly indeterminate. Their ambiguity makes them useful in libertarian rhetoric, but problematic when it comes to forging a coherent political philosophy. As I argue in the Journal of Libertarian Studies article just linked to, when the “ownership” in “self-ownership” is spelled out one way, the results tend to favor leftish moral views, and when spelled out another way (the way I favor in the article) they tend to favor conservative ones. Some such spelling out is necessary, but no possible spelling out ends up being “neutral” with respect to substantive liberal and conservative moral codes.

The “self” in self-ownership is equally ambiguous; and as I argue in my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Personal Identity and Self-Ownership,” different conceptions of the self, like different elaborations of the concept of “ownership,” have radically different moral implications – and again, in no case are these implications consistent with a vision of libertarianism as “neutral” between the conflicting moral, political, and religious doctrines prevailing within a pluralistic society.

Philosophically speaking, then, libertarianism is a mess. Its rhetorical power lies precisely in its purported hyper-neutrality, the conceit that libertarianism alone allows everyone – egalitarian hippies and entrepreneurs, evangelicals and atheists, ascetics and libertines, feminists and male chauvinists – to “do their own thing,” as Nozick put it. But when one tries to put philosophical muscle onto these bare bones, the whole thing falls apart. Like Rawlsian liberalism, libertarianism inevitably embodies a substantive vision of the good which crowds out every other under the pretense of doing precisely the opposite. Given the indeterminacy of its key concepts, that vision may end up being either more or less “left-wing” or more or less “right-wing” when those concepts are given a more substantive elaboration. But the idea of a political order which is “neutral” in some interesting way – a way which might resolve the festering cultural and political tensions characterizing modern pluralistic societies, by means of an appeal to a shared sense of justice rather than a mere modus vivendi – vanishes upon analysis like the mirage it is. That, in any event, is the position defended in the articles I have mentioned, and that is worked out most thoroughly in “Self-Ownership, Libertarianism, and Impartiality.”

Finally, I want to emphasize that the aim of that particular paper is only to refute the claim that libertarianism is or can be “neutral” in the sense in question. I know from bitter experience that writing on this subject seems to test certain libertarians’ reading skills, and I will no doubt be accused of seeking to impose Roman Catholicism, an Aristotelian-Scholastic curriculum, Steely Dan T-shirts, and who knows what else upon the freedom-loving citizens of these United States. But the argument has nothing whatsoever to do with my seeking to “impose” my “personal tastes,” or anything else, on anyone. It has to do, again, solely with the question of whether libertarianism is “neutral” in the relevant sense. So, if you want to comment on the argument of the paper, please stick to the subject.
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