Libertarianism, again

With the exception of Chris Bertram, participants on all sides of the debate over libertarianism kicked off by Ken Parish seem to regard refuting Robert Nozick as being a bit of a cheap shot. As Perry de Havillard says in Brian Weatherson’s comments thread

Nozickâs are the weakest arguments for the whole libertarian edifice so donât congratulate yourself all too much on hitting such a large slow moving target.

So I think this is a good time to move on to more serious objections to libertarianism.

The basic claim of libertarianism, as I read it, is that the standard liberal case for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and so can, correctly be extended to embrace ‘free markets’, though not, for example, ‘free education’ or ‘free health care’.

As the examples in scare quotes indicate, a purely linguistic argument based on usage of the word ‘free’ doesn’t get us very far. It’s necessary to think about what we mean by ‘freedom of religion’ and the implications for public policy before attempting to generalise.

The debate about freedom of religion begins with the observation that there are many different religions and no obvious way of determining which one is right. The liberal position begins with the claim that people are better if they are free to choose their own possible religious beliefs, and to debate these beliefs with others. The most pertinent restrictions on the choice set have been attempt by the State to enforce or encourage particular religious beliefs at the expense of others. Hence the natural liberal position is that States should do nothing to restrict, or encourage, religious beliefs, thereby maximising the choice set for all.

Identical arguments work for freedom of speech in general, and for freedom in regard to a range of ‘self-regarding’ actions, such as sexual preferences, consumption of drugs and so on.

Carrying the analogy over to economic issues in general, we reach, as a starting point, the claim that a person is better off, the larger is their choice set, that is, the larger is the set of consumption bundles available to them. If accepted, this claim rules out a range of actual and possible economic policies, such as restrictions on choice designed to ‘protect people from themselves’. It does not, however, get us very far in relation to economic policy in general. The most important single determinant (though not the sole determinant) of the size of a person’s choice set is their real income (defined appropriately to allow for non-marketed goods, preservation of the environment and so on)

The analogy with religious freedom would suggest that liberals should favor policies that increase real income for everybody. In the absence of additional auxiliary hypotheses, it yields no conclusion about policies which change the distribution of a given income.

The most plausible auxiliary hypothesis is that summed up in the postulate of diminishing marginal utility, that the marginal benefits of increased income (a larger economic choice set) relative to other goods decline as income rises. If this is accepted, as it was in the end by most 19th century liberals, we get a conclusion in favour of of egalitarian income redistribution.

The libertarian position seems to rely either on linguistic confusion about the meaning of ‘free’ or on the adoption of the factual hypothesis that free-market economic policies maximise income, and therefore the economic choice set, for all or most people. The views of economists regarding this hypothesis have varied over time. More importantly, as JS Mill was the first to point out clearly, acceptance or rejection of this hypothesis has nothing to do with the arguments for freedom of speech and religion.

The implication of Mill’s point is that ‘libertarianism’ does not describe a single coherent philosophical position, but a combination of two logically unrelated positions.

Evidence for this may be found in the various attempts at mapping political viewpoints, which typically adopt a two dimensional framework in which views on personal freedom and economic policy are treated as orthogonal. A typical example is presented here

28 thoughts on “Libertarianism, again

  1. My point … was that people find it easier to disagree with a position (say, libertarianism) if they can find some easy ways of subtely turning language against them (they care about producers, not consumers).

    Very true, but I think my point needs some clarifying if you (and presumably others) took me to be offering the producer/consumer thing as a criticism of libertarianism. I meant it as a criticism of John Quiggin’s attempt to follow libertarian logic from their views on freedom of speech etc. to their views on economics. John entered the economic situation from the consumer, whereas libertarian arguments I’ve read tend to enter from the seller. As John’s methodology was to follow the libertarian argument from personal freedoms to economic freedoms and show why it was incorrect, it seemed to me that he was missing the mark by forging his own, different, path between the two spheres.

  2. 24601 ‘s

    “At the end of the day, all political philosophies are based on axioms that can’t be proved.”

    personal preferences, proclivities, inclinations, bias provide the energy that creates these axioms and enjoins them to bicker with each other in conflict and consensus, in co-operation and competition,

    both individuals and society are made in that interaction

    why should one set of preferences, one coalition, being given privilege of determining the whole “system”

    posession alone?

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