A Reply to David Gordon

David Gordon poses the following question: Must Libertarians Be Social Liberals?

I would answer both yes and no.

No, with respect to any necessary moral judgements regarding tastes in music, religion, culture, etc. But “yes” with respect to something like the “right to travel.” Differentiation in agent tastes between, say, the Oak Ridge Boys and Nine Inch Nails is not the issue; however, the right of the Oak Ridge Boys or Nine Inch Nails to travel to play in front of their “cultural fanbase” is an issue. It’s the latter point where Gordon fails. And he fails because he is not a “social liberal.”

Gordon’s beef with “social liberalism” appears to be rooted in insufficient homage to Ron Paul. As Gordon writes in his review of Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie’s book, The Declaration of Independents:

Gillespie and Welch’s ambivalence toward Paul reflects a fundamental problem with their book. To them, libertarianism is not only a political theory and program: it is a social attitude and even an aesthetic sensibility as well. Because Paul does not for the most part share their social preferences, they cannot fully embrace him. He is not really one of their sort.

I reviewed The Declaration of Independents this past summer, and the conceptual problem with the book wasn’t “ambivalence toward Ron Paul.” Rather, based on Welch’s and Gillespie’s definition of libertarianism, the problem was that competition in consumer markets doesn’t change the competition model of political duopoly. Duopoly is a game of strategic substitutes, no matter how many brands of coffee Starbucks serves. The public goods problem would be modifying the rules of barrier of entry regarding political competition, something that would require a significant formal institutional movement to effectuate. W&G failed to address how the “lifestyle voter” could underwrite such an institutional framework.

Gordon’s critique, “needs more Ron Paul,” doesn’t make much sense in terms of correcting the W&G hypothesis. How does “more Ron Paul in the GOP” resolve the duopoly problem? Of course, it doesn’t.

But apart from any considerations of Welch and Gillespie’s book, the issue of Ron Paul, among libertarians, is often presented as a litmus test. I don’t think this type of appeal fares particularly well. For example, Gordon makes such an appeal back in 2007, An Open Letter To Libertarians on Ron Paul. Gordon argues that it’s only culturally left libertarians that fail to support Ron Paul. Gordon casts an “open borders immigration” position as a culturally left position. He then invokes Hans Hoppe to morally support this position.

The Hoppe position is certainly one that can morally justify, on property rights grounds, a refusal to allow Nine Inch Nails to travel to a convenient location to play for their fans at a particular vicinity. For Gordon and Hoppe, this would not be an instance of intolerance. But I would argue that it probably would be.

Although the libertarian principle in the end simply means “anything peaceful is tolerated,” tolerance itself–at least in the libertarian sense– is not a moral principle. Rather, it is best interpreted as a moral constraint. This is a point I’ve discussed in detail in previous posts. A summary would be:

A rejection of libertarianism as a moral theory. Instead, it is a social theory that is not derivable from any specific meta-ethical foundation. In essence, it is unconcerned with meta-ethical foundations and instead is concerned with rational constraints on moral claims derived from these foundations. In practice, this places the emphasis–vis a vis the libertarian principle–more on a revised Lockean proviso and not on NAP.

Libertarianism then places complete laissez faire at the foundation of the social order. This is a bit different formulation than, say, a Rothbardian treatment, that is more concerned with the foundations of the moral permissible use of force.

So, for example, laissez faire is more or less silent on the foundation of a property rights regime(say mutualist vs lockean). Where it is not silent, however, is on the type of constraints such a foundation might impose. Specifically, in this case, with respect to such liberties as freedom of association or assembly. So, whether a property rights regime is mutualist or lockean(or rothbardian), we should not expect unreasonable burdens on the right to travel and freedom of association for such things as a rock concert or a country music concert.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe is noted for the position that freedom of movement is a cultural threat to western civilization. I would deem this to be a socially illiberal position. Hoppe employed an “invited-contractual” property rights argument as the moral foundation for such a position. I believe it is fair to say that David Gordon is in agreement with Hoppe.

It may be that Hoppe’s position on this matter may not violate Hoppe’s moral version of NAP, but, such a position, I would argue, nonetheless, violates the libertarian principle. Hoppe’s position is an example of using a moral foundation to support an illiberal moral judgement, and is an example of where “social illiberalism” motivates moral constructions that violate libertarian constraints.

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