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Ethics for Libertarians and other minorities

October 29th, 2002

In the course of some research (into minimum wages of all things) I happened to run across an interesting journal called Social Philosophy and Policy with a number of articles devoted to libertarianism and specifically to its failure to gain significant popular support. This was of interest to me both because so many of my fellow-bloggers are libertarians and because many of the points raised were equally applicable to other minority viewpoints such as socialism.
Loren Lomasky focused specifically on the position of libertarians in a society where large-scale state intervention takes place with the support of 99 per cent of the population. He argues that libertarians must resist the temptation to view all those who disagree with them as fools or knaves, pointing out that libertarians themselves disagree about many of the points that lead others to be skeptical (e.g. the relationship between a hypothetical ‘initial position’ and opposition to redistribution of existing wealth). In my experience, the correlation between political views and personal character, while non-zero, is so low that judging a person’s character by their general political stance is almost always a mistake (IMHO, users of terms like ‘idiotarian’ are revealing more about their own intellectual capacity than that of the people they are attacking).
Lomasky also raises some interesting questions about moral conduct for libertarians. For example: Is a libertarian academic justified in taking the best available job, even if it’s in a state university (His answer “Yes”). Is a libertarian whose neighbour is causing him grief justified in tipping off the police about the neighbour’s drug stash (No). I can say from personal experience that very similar issues arise for socialists and even for consistently liberal social democrats (for my current self-classification, click here).
The other point raised by all the papers is one I noted myself a while ago. The debate among the inheritors of the classical liberal tradition has been fundamentally changed by the success of the social-democratic welfare state in providing a previously unimaginable level of security against economic hardship. Libertarians must either concede a lot of ground (Lomasky’s view, I think) or come up with more convincing market substitutes than they have produced so far (the line taken by Richard Epstein).

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