The road from libertarianism

I have pretty much always been conservative.  For about a decade -- from the early 90s to the early 00s -- I was also a libertarian.  That is to say, I was a “fusionist”: someone who combines a conservative moral and social philosophy with a libertarian political philosophy.  Occasionally I am asked how I came to abandon libertarianism.  Having said something recently about how I came to reject atheism, I might as well say something about the other transition.

The claim to have been, at one time, both a conservative and a libertarian might sound odd to some readers, though the description I just gave of fusionism should explain my meaning.  The term “libertarian” is used in a variety of ways.  Sometimes “libertarianism” is described as a position that is “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”  But that is misleading.  Some libertarians are “socially liberal” in the sense of approving of, or at least not disapproving of, various decidedly non-conservative activities (recreational drug use, sexual libertinism, etc.).   But not all libertarians are “socially liberal” in that sense, and I certainly never was.  For me (and for at least many libertarians) libertarianism is merely a view about the proper bounds of state power, and not a general social, cultural, or moral philosophy.  Libertarians typically hold that government should not interfere with activities of the sort in question, but they do not all regard those activities as advisable or even morally permissible.  A libertarian could say, for example, that using cocaine for recreational purposes is morally wrong but should not be illegal.  And that is the sort of thing I would have said in my libertarian days.

There are also different versions of libertarianism, and different sorts of arguments for these versions.  “Anarcho-capitalist” libertarians like David Friedman hold that at least ideally, all governmental functions should be privatized, and some (like Murray Rothbard) would even go so far as to claim that all government is per se unjust.  “Minimal state” libertarians like Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand would maintain that some governmental functions (the paradigm examples being national defense, police, and courts of law) are legitimate, but would allow government to do little or nothing beyond this.  Writers like F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman represent a somewhat looser form of libertarianism, willing as they are to allow that government might legitimately go a bit beyond the minimal state.  (For example, Hayek allowed for a modest social safety net.)

Arguments for libertarianism fall into two general categories.  There are on the one hand what we might call pragmatic or prudential arguments either for the practical superiority of this or that specific libertarian policy, or for the practical superiority of a broadly libertarian polity in general.  Such arguments might appeal to economic analysis, historical evidence, or the like -- a comparison between the respective records of free versus centrally planned economies, an account of how market prices transmit information and provide incentives, an analysis of the effects of welfare programs on the poor, and so forth.   The main arguments of Hayek and Milton Friedman are more or less of this sort.  On the other hand there are principled or philosophical arguments to the effect that libertarian policies are more just or otherwise morally superior to their rivals.  Such arguments might claim that human beings have by nature a right to liberty that is so strong that it allows even in principle for very little if any governmental restriction on that liberty, or that there is a moral burden of proof on restrictions to liberty that non-libertarian positions fail to meet.  The characteristic arguments of Nozick and Rand are more or less of this principled sort.  

Of course, many libertarians deploy both pragmatic and principled arguments.  The pragmatic or prudential arguments tend to appeal to a larger number of self-described libertarians than the philosophical arguments do, and also appeal to many non-libertarians.  But it is also much harder to defend a thoroughgoing libertarianism -- as opposed to a libertarian position on this or that specific issue -- using only pragmatic arguments.  By contrast, the principled or philosophical arguments, if they work at all, will get you to a thoroughgoing libertarian position, but they are also far more controversial than the pragmatic arguments.  

In my own case, I found both sorts of arguments powerful, but it was the philosophical or principled ones that led me to a thoroughgoing libertarian position, and it was abandoning those arguments that led me to give up libertarianism.  I still find many of the pragmatic or prudential arguments powerful -- especially the Hayekian ones -- but they don’t get you to libertarianism per se.  Hence these days I would call myself a “free-market conservative” or “limited government conservative.”  But I’ll get to the content of my current views later on.

As to the content of my views during my libertarian days, I was never a convinced “anarcho-capitalist,” though I did at least flirt with the idea for a time.  My inclinations were generally in the direction of a Nozick-style minimal state -- my “settled” view insofar as I had one -- though toward the end of my libertarian period I was probably somewhat more open to a looser Hayek-style libertarianism.  But it’s hard to say for sure in retrospect exactly what my position was toward the very end, because the reasons that were leading me to be more open to a less doctrinaire form of libertarianism were essentially the same as the reasons that led me to abandon libertarianism altogether.  

Nozick and Hayek were in any event the biggest influences on my thinking, with Rothbard a secondary influence.  Rand was never a big influence, though like most libertarians I had a general regard for her.  But whatever there was of value in her political philosophy seemed to me more systematically and rigorously stated by others, and I had little interest in the distinctively Objectivist stuff.  Naturally the arguments of Friedman, Mises, and various less well-known libertarian writers had an influence as well.  But again, Nozick and Hayek had the deepest and most systematic impact on me, and I still regard them as by far the most significant thinkers to come out of the libertarian tradition, the ones with whom any serious student of political philosophy needs to engage.

So much for general remarks.  The actual development of my views was initially less systematic than all of that might seem to imply.  As I’ve said, I have more or less always been conservative.  But it took me some time to think through matters of political philosophy in a systematic way, even after getting interested in philosophy.  One reason for this is that, as my recent post on my atheist years indicates, the philosophy of religion dominated my attention in my earliest years as a philosophy student.  But there was also the fact that it is difficult for a philosophy student to become acquainted with the work of conservative philosophers.  

Academic political philosophy is, needless to say, dominated by left-wingers.  Perhaps by coincidence, introductory texts in the subject, while they will devote whole chapters or long sections to expositions of liberalism, Marxism, feminism, and the like, tend to say little if anything about conservatism.  To be sure, Christman’s introduction does include a significant section on conservatism, as does Goodin, Pettit, and Pogge’s A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy.  But you’ll find nothing more than a passing reference in prominent introductory works like Wolff’s, Kymlicka’s, or Hampton’s.  Any undergrad who takes several courses in political philosophy will almost certainly come away with a general knowledge of the main lines of argument put forward by liberals, Marxists, and feminists.  But he is unlikely to know much about conservatism, and indeed may not be aware that serious conservative philosophers like Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, and John Kekes even exist.  

I may have first come across Scruton’s name when someone at Cal State Fullerton, where I was an undergrad, posted in the philosophy department office an article that was either written by him or mentioned him, and scrawled in the margin “Mrs. Thatcher’s favorite political philosopher,” or something to that effect.  It didn’t seem to have been meant as a recommendation, but I was nevertheless intrigued.  I also somehow found out that Antony Flew was a right-winger of some sort, and, through Flew’s work, that Hume had been a kind of conservative.  (Since this was during the time that I was questioning theism, the fact that two prominent critics of religion were nevertheless conservative was very interesting indeed.)  But it was not so clear at the time where one might readily find an exposition, by these writers or anyone else, of conservatism as a worked out philosophical position.

What an undergrad philosophy student could readily find (and can still readily find) by way of a systematic introduction to right-wing ideas were expositions of libertarianism, or at least of Nozick’s brand of libertarianism.  And that was indeed the first thing I came across, when, fairly early in my undergrad years, I took a couple of courses that touched on the dispute between Nozick and John Rawls.  But I was not, at first, particularly attracted to libertarianism.  Indeed, for a brief period in my undergrad years I was more attracted to the ideas then flying under the “communitarian” label, which seemed more in harmony with the moral conservatism to which I already tended and with the Aristotelian moral philosophy I was by then already familiar with.   (A guy in my social philosophy class whose name I don’t recall gave a presentation defending Nozick.  I seem to recall that he tried to convince me in particular that Nozick’s “framework for utopia” was something someone interested in virtue ethics should endorse.  At the time I didn’t buy it.)

But before long my views started to shift in a libertarian direction.  My friend Mike, a fellow philosophy major first at Cal State Fullerton and later at Claremont Graduate School, was a conservative and a Calvinist.  He was also one of the smartest and most well-read of my fellow students.  We used to talk for hours about philosophy, religion, and politics.  In religion, I don’t think either of us ever swayed the other an inch.  (This was at the height of my atheist period.)  In philosophy, we shared a keen interest in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language, but my naturalism kept me from taking too much of an interest in the dualism he endorsed, and his Calvinism kept him from taking too much of an interest in the Aristotelian ethics I defended.  In politics, though, our friendly disputes were more fruitful, at least for me.  While he was not exactly a libertarian, and was if anything even more socially conservative than I was, his views on current controversies reflected a staunch and principled commitment to limited government and the free market.  In particular, he was on principle generally hostile to government action even as a means of upholding virtuous behavior.  This forced me to think through more carefully my then very inchoate conservatism, and made me take libertarian arguments more seriously.

That a conservative could and should take such arguments seriously was a conclusion that was reinforced when I first came across Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit (about twenty years ago -- in, I think, the Fuller Seminary bookstore, which even a then-atheist like me loved to frequent for its philosophy section).  The back cover described Hayek both as “the preeminent proponent of the libertarian philosophy” and as “the ideological mentor of the Reagan and Thatcher ‘revolutions.’”   His arguments were secular but unapologetically anti-leftist and friendly to traditional morals.  He sounded like my kind of guy.  Before long I would be self-consciously committed to the proposition that a conservative should uphold both traditional morality and a presumption in favor of private initiative and against government action.  I have been committed to it ever since, even though I no longer take the latter component to the extremes a libertarian would.

What led me to take it to those extremes for several years were two main lines of argument, a negative one and a positive one, which for a time seemed to me compelling.  The negative line of argument was that Hayek’s and Nozick’s critiques of the very idea of social justice destroyed any egalitarian (or other) justification for redistributing wealth via taxation.  I defended such arguments against various criticisms in two articles on Hayek’s attack on social justice, which were published in Critical Review.  The positive line of argument was that Nozick’s and Rothbard’s critiques of taxation showed that such redistribution was not only unjustified but positively unjust, and thus that no taxation at all was legitimate except perhaps what was necessary to fund the minimal state.  I defended this claim against various objections in two articles on taxation published in The Independent Review (and still available online hereand here).  Both lines of argument were further defended in my book On Nozick and in my Social Philosophy and Policy article “There Is No Such Thing as an Unjust Initial Acquisition.”  These were both completed in the summer of 2002 while I was a visiting scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, and constitute, you might say, the climax of my libertarian period.  

But immediately upon reaching this climax, the arguments started slowly to unravel.  The reasons had much to do with an idea I had picked up from Eric Mack, a libertarian philosopher whose work I have always greatly respected and who, after Hayek, Nozick, and Rothbard, probably had the greatest influence on my thinking about political philosophy during my libertarian days.  (Which may not seem like the compliment it is meant to be, considering what happened.  Sorry to blame you for my apostasy, Eric!)  

To explain what happened next requires a bit of background.  At the core of Nozick’s and Rothbard’s critiques of taxation, and of my own thinking about libertarianism, was the thesis of self-ownership, which holds that each of us is his or her own property, and thus that each of us has rights over ourselves of the sort that are typically associated with property.  Hence you have the right to decide what to do with your body and its parts and with your talents and labor power, and (so the argument goes) by extension have the right to determine what will be done with the fruits of your labor, such as your income.  Now several libertarian philosophers -- such as Ayn Rand, Tibor Machan, Eric Mack at one stage of his career, and Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl --have tried to ground a libertarian conception of natural rights in Aristotelian moral theory.  (A very useful survey of these arguments can be found in Fred Miller’s essay “Neo-Aristotelian Theories of Natural Rights,” which appears in Douglas Rasmussen, Aeon Skoble, and Douglas Den Uyl, eds., Reality, Reason, and Rights: Essays in Honor of Tibor R. Machan.)  I was already an Aristotelian in matters of ethics by the time I became drawn to libertarianism, and such arguments seemed a natural way to harmonize these commitments.  In particular, I thought the conception of natural rights embodied in the thesis of self-ownership -- which I took to be independently plausible and which was the very heart of my own libertarianism -- fit in naturally with the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) natural law approach to ethics that had become my settled view by the early 2000s.

I was dead wrong.  There are two main problems with the idea of self-ownership -- the “self” part, and the “ownership” part.  Mack’s work got me on the road to seeing this, though that was hardly what he intended.  In his Social Philosophy and Policy article “The Self-Ownership Proviso: A New and Improved Lockean Proviso,” Mack had put forward what seemed (and still seems) to me powerful arguments to the effect that we cannot plausibly be said to own ourselves in a substantive way if the right to self-ownership protects us only “from the skin inward” and says nothing about whether we may bring our powers to bear on the world.  Suppose, for example, that you and I are castaways and wash up on some tiny island upon which no human beings have ever trod.  You immediately pass out on the beach, while I get to work constructing a bamboo fence whose perimeter happens entirely to enclose your body.  Upon waking, you accuse me of imprisoning you and thereby violating your self-ownership rights, and demand to be released.  Suppose I then respond as follows: “I have not imprisoned you at all!  I’ve simply homesteaded all the land around you -- which you had no right to, since it was virgin territory -- and I’ve built a fence around it, to make sure youdon’t come onto my land and take any of the resources I’ve justly acquired.  True, you’ve got nothing in the way of resources in the seven-foot by four-foot plot of sand I’ve left you, but that’s not my fault.  That’s just your bad luck, sorry.  I suppose it would be nice of me to give you some of mine, but at most I’d be unkind rather than unjust if I decide not to do so.  And I was very careful not to touch you as I built my fence.  I do respect your right of self-ownership, after all!” 

Now even though I would not have directlyharmed you in any way -- I haven’t so much as touched your body, nor (so the argument goes) taken anything that belonged to you, since it was virgin territory and “up for grabs” -- there is still an obvious sense in which I have harmed you indirectly.  For part of what you own by virtue of being a self-owner are powers that are of their nature “world-interactive” (as Mack puts it) and I have effectively nullified your ability to bring those powers to bear on the world.  And precisely by doing so I have, you might say, respected the letter but not the spirit of the thesis of self-ownership.  To respect others’ rights of self-ownership in a substantive and not merely formal way, then, we have in Mack’s view to avoid using our property in a way that effectively nullifies others’ ability to bring their world-interactive powers to bear on the world.

That is just a brief sketch of Mack’s point; I develop and defend it at length in my article “There is No Such Thing as an Unjust Initial Acquisition,” which I linked to above.  But it is a point that any Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theorist has to take very seriously, for two reasons.  First of all, the A-T ethicist grounds morality in a teleological conception of human nature, and cannot fail to agree with Mack that many of our powers are inherently world-interactive.  In particular, no A-T natural law theorist can fail to agree that our realizing what is good for us, our flourishing as the kinds of beings we are, requires that we be able to bring those powers to bear on the world.  Secondly, for those A-T theorists who are open to the idea of natural rights, those rights have themselves a teleological foundation.   We have the natural rights we have precisely as a means of safeguarding our ability to flourish as the kinds of beings we are, to pursue what nature has determined is good for us and perfects us.  So, if an A-T approach to natural rights could ground the thesis of self-ownership, it would have to ground something like Mack’s self-ownership proviso as well.  So far so good, I concluded at the time I wrote the “There is No Such Thing” article.

But no sooner had I finished writing up that article than I could see that the implications of this conclusion were very far-reaching indeed.  For among our powers and capacities are various moral capacities.  And for the Aristotelian, our moral character is initially formed as a matter of acquiring the right habits, in childhood, and only later coming to understand the rationale behind those habits.  To cause a child to fall into bad moral habits is therefore to damage the distinctively moral powers he owns by virtue of being a self-owner, and thus (given Mack’s self-ownership proviso) arguably to fail to respect his right of self-ownership in a substantive rather than merely formal way.  But that in turn seemed to entail that at least in principle, certain governmental measures to protect children from moral corruption could be justified on self-ownership grounds!  There is also the fact that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see how Mack’s self-ownership proviso might be deployed in an argument against abortion.  (To be sure, I was pro-life even when I was a libertarian.  But Mack’s proviso seemed to provide a further argument.)  I developed and defended these ideas at length in my article “Self-Ownership, Abortion, and the Rights of Children: Toward a More Conservative Libertarianism,” which I wrote during the same summer that I finished up work on On Nozick and wrote the “There Is No Such Thing” article.  It was later published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.  

Certain libertarians freaked out after it appeared, and accused me of all sorts of ridiculous things.  They also missed the point, which -- as I made clear in the paper -- was not to endorse any particular piece of morals legislation, but rather to argue that contrary to what so many libertarians (including my younger self) supposed, shouting “self-ownership” simply does not by itself suffice to rule out certain kinds of morals legislation.  This includes left-of-center morals legislation, as I have made clear elsewhere.  If you think that public “hate speech” corrupts the youth, then you have grounds in self-ownership for curbing public hate speech by law.  Whether or not that’s a good idea, the thesis of self-ownership itself, when its implications are worked out, doesn’t tell you either way.  That was the main point -- that the thesis of self-ownership on its own simply doesn’t rule out nearly as much as people think it does.

Initially (and as the article indicates) I thought that this was still consistent with the idea that the thesis of self-ownership entails a kind of libertarianism.  But that didn’t last long.  For one thing, the “libertarianism” that resulted was very thin indeed.  For another, I came to see that the thesis was even more indeterminate than Mack’s “self-ownership proviso” already entailed.  For what exactly is this “self” to which the thesis makes reference?  As I argued in my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Personal Identity and Self-Ownership,” no matter what answer we give -- a Cartesian answer, or a materialist answer of some sort, or a Lockean answer, or an Aristotelian-Thomistic answer -- we will be left with an interpretation of the thesis of self-ownership that has implications most libertarians would be uncomfortable with.  In particular, we will either end up making most or even all of the body something strictly external to the self, and thus just another natural resource that others may at least partially homestead; or we will integrate the body into the self in a way that entails an Aristotelian view of human nature, and thus reinforces the morally conservative interpretation of self-ownership explored in the “Self-Ownership, Abortion, and the Rights of Children” article.

That the “ownership” aspect of the thesis is no less indeterminate than the “self” aspect also became more evident to me as I thought more carefully about John Locke, who was a defender of the thesis of self-ownership but also someone who denied that our rights were so absolute that we could have a right to commit suicide or to sell ourselves into slavery.  And after all, in everyday life we can rightly be said to own all sorts of things to which we don’t have absolute property rights.  For example, you might own the land your house sits on without thereby having the right to store nuclear waste on it.  But then, how absolute should we take property rights to be, and why?  That depends on your theory of rights.  And that reinforces the point that the thesis of self-ownership by itself doesn’t tell us nearly as much as many libertarians think it does.  Ifthe theory of rights that underlies the thesis entails an absolute right of self-ownership, then our rights over ourselves are exactly what libertarians think they are.  But if the theory that underlies the thesis does not entail such an absolute right -- as it didn’t for Locke -- then we might in some sense own ourselves, but without therefore having the right to take heroin, or unilaterally to divorce a spouse, or whatever.  Again, the idea of self-ownership by itselfwon’t tell you either way.  You have to look to the underlying theory of rights to find out -- in which case the thesis of self-ownership isn’t doing a whole lot of work.

In my own case, the underlying theory was an A-T natural law theory.  And it became clear the more I thought about natural law theory that since the very pointof natural rights was, on that view, to safeguard our ability to fulfill the ends nature had set for us, there could in principle be no such thing as a natural right to do what is positively contrary to those ends.  That does not mean that everything that is morally wrong should be outlawed; that’s not the point.  The point is rather that from A-T natural law theory, there is no way you are going to get the absolute right of self-ownership -- a natural right to do even what is morally wrong as long as it violates no one else’s rights -- that natural rights libertarians like Nozick and Rothbard thought we had. 

Now the thesis of self-ownership was, as I have said, the core of my own commitment to libertarianism.  But as I came to see, the thesis was hopelessly indeterminate, certainly way too indeterminate to ground libertarianism and even (as I now think) too indeterminate to be very interesting at all.   Meanwhile, deeper reflection on classical natural law theory led me to see that there was in any event no way to provide a natural law foundation for a distinctively libertarian theory of natural rights.  And it led me to see as well that an Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to natural law simply could not be reconciled with various specific theses associated with libertarianism -- such as the view that the authority of the state arises entirely through consent, and the idea that we can have no enforceable obligations to others that we do not freely choose to take on.  Since Catholic social teaching is grounded in natural law, it is no surprise that I also came to conclude that libertarianism could not be made consistent with that teaching either.  I’m not sure exactly when I finally decided that I was no longer a libertarian, but I don’t think it could have been any later than the Fall of 2004, and was probably much earlier.  (Though academic publishing being what it is, the fairly radically libertarian “There Is No Such Thing” paper didn’t appear until the January 2005 issue!)

Contrary to what some of my more unhinged critics seemed to think, that did not mean that I suddenly became a totalitarian right-wing moralist, keen to impose my Catholicism on others through force of law.  I simply moved away from doctrinaire libertarianism to a more modest but still quite firm commitment to limited government and private enterprise.  That libertarianism is false does not magically cause government to be competent or give it a blank check to tax and regulate as it sees fit.  Nor does the truth of the classical natural law approach to ethics and politics somehow give those committed to it competence in matters of economics and public policy (as the statements of certain Catholic theologians and churchmen prove conclusively).  Indeed, while I am now firmly opposed to libertarianism, I am also as opposed as I ever was to every form of socialism and egalitarian liberalism.  (Nor has distributism come to seem much more plausible to me now than I found it in my libertarian days, though I do confess that I think my former co-blogger Paul Cella was on to something when he labeled the financial meltdown of 2008 and beyond “The Great Usury Crisis.” )

For reasons I have explained in my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” -- where the interested reader can find my current views on the matters referred to in the title -- I think that an A-T natural law approach to those matters entails the rejection of libertarianism, socialism, and egalitarian liberalism alike, and in most areas requires at least a presumption in favor of private enterprise and against government action.  In other words, I think that moral principle should lead us to take a broadly center-right approach to matters of politics rather than a broadly center-left approach.  But beyond that, abstract moral principle cannot tell us much, and we have to look to common sense, experience, history, current circumstances, and whatever economics and the other social sciences can tell us in order to decide upon concrete policy.  That doesn’t give us anything like the “single magic bullet” approach to politics that the thesis of self-ownership seemed to provide.  But if there’s one thing any conservative should know, it’s that looking for single magic bullets is after all a pretty stupid project where social and political philosophy are concerned.  All the same, on some matters -- such as opposition to the abomination that is Obamacare -- I am happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with libertarians.

This has been just a sketch of how my thinking on these matters gradually changed.  I have not tried to give much in the way of arguments, because I have done that elsewhere and the post is long enough as it is.  In addition to the articles linked to above, interested readers can look to the following earlier writings for more on the topics I’ve addressed.  

“Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” linked to above, is the most important place to look for an account of why I think libertarianism cannot be given a foundation in classical natural law theory.  I also address the issue in a lecture I delivered at the Austrian Scholars Conference in 2005:

For criticism of some of Rothbard’s and Nozick’s arguments concerning self-ownership and related matters, see:

Libertarianism is often presented as “neutral” between competing moral, religious, and philosophical views existing within a pluralistic society.  But this purported neutrality is illusory, as I argued in a lecture delivered at the University of Reading in 2006:

I had made similar arguments a couple of years earlier in a pair of articles for TCS Daily:

and later revisited the theme in a blog post:

For criticism of “fusionist” attempts to combine conservatism and libertarianism, see another TCS Daily article:

and another blog post:

I survey conservative objections to libertarianism in my article “The Conservative Critique of Libertarianism,” which appeared in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism and which you can read via Google Books.   (The article is at pp. 95-97.  Unless you’ve got phenomenal eyesight and/or patience, you’ll probably have to click on the magnification button to read it.)

My rejection of Nozick’s and Rothbard’s libertarianism also led to a more critical attitude toward the broader Lockean political tradition that had influenced then, as can be seen from my book Lockeand yet another TCS Daily article:

Finally, a response to a particularly egregious misrepresentation of my post-libertarian views can be found in another Journal of Libertarian Studies article:

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