Coherence, Not Purity
Alexander’s McCobin essay, Let’s Reject the Purity Test, which is part of this month’s Cato Unbound issue, “Where Next? The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism,” is a more or less an argument for unbridled incoherence in libertarianism. Of course, what I call incoherence, McCobin calls “purity.” But these two things are not the same. An insistence on a coherent foundation of a rational framework is a necessary condition for the profitable use of said rational framework as an an analytical and methodological tool. Otherwise, the framework is useless and merely serves to obfuscate matters.
Let us be concrete. This whole business, in part, stems from the argument whether “classical liberalism” is consistent with “distributive justice.” Obviously, if we appeal to Rawls or Harsanyi, i.e., “modern or “high” liberalism, claims of distributive justice are not methodologically inconsistent with liberalism. That is, “distributive justice” does not necessarily introduce incoherence into the liberal methodology(NOTE: if we listened to the distributive justice claims of the communitarians and tried to justify such via vis liberalism, then this would introduce a high degree of incoherence). Both Rawls and Harsanyi operate in accordance to the liberal methodology, which is to use an initial state of agent non-obligation(in this case, “a veil of ignorance”) to rationally deduce agent political obligation. The distinction between, say, Locke’s “property bundle” and Rawl’s “primary goods” is a matter of degree, not kind.
However, as I have noted in my previous posts, the liberal methodology cannot satisfactorily normalize our degree of “primary goods.” Yes, we know that the ends of the State are these primary goods, but the exact composition of this bundle is a point of contention. One of my insistent points is that libertarianism in no way sheds any normative light on the proper constitution of this bundle–that is, the ends of the State. To try to use it methodologically in this manner to normalize a proper ends of the State is a perversion. This perversion applies to whatever proper ends argued–Lockean or Rawlsian.
We see the fruits of this futile endeavor at Cato Unbound this month. These disputes over a “proper, normative” version of property rights, that devolve into a thousand arguments over “absolutism,” could persist for 50 years without resolution. Hell, the disputes could persist for a hundred years. It is an academic full employment act. It is this type of irresolution that prompts the likes of McCobin to throw up his hands and declare “No Purity Tests.”
But this is the wrong reaction/conclusion. Our normative problem has a relatively straightforward practical resolution. In liberal democracy, the “primary goods,” the ends of the State, are subjected to a democratic process1. “Limited government” is a meaningless and non-obligatory term within the liberal paradigm. The relevant concept is “constrained government.” Yes, the ends of the State are subjected to a democratic process, but these ends cannot cross an easily identifiable boundary–the Total State. The Total State simply means the State, as an artificial construct, serving as both the originator and enforcer of compliance. This condition is most starkly exemplified by a “Security State.”
To me, “Where Next? The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism” debate is an attempt to zombify a corpse. There is a highly defensible argument that liberalism is effectively dead. The only relevant discussion now is the proper means of disposal: burial or cremation. Simply, when the Executive declares unilateral power to declare anyone “fair game” outside the bounds of due process–and this power is backed up by the most unaccountable intelligence and military complex in the history of world civilization–then liberalism and its legal underpinning are dissolved. Both “classic” and “high” liberals should be in agreement that this condition thus marks a point of dissolution of political obligation. That this condition seems to be irrelevant to the majority of the “liberal professional political class” is an indication of the rottenness of the system. Indeed, the problem of liberal reform, I would argue, is a primary focus of the libertarian methodology. That is, libertarianism, as a political theory, is not so much concerned with normalizing or legitimizing moral claims of political obligation but rather with a critical scrutiny of said moral claims. And there is good reason for this, a good reason why libertarianism is, in fact, a departure from liberalism and not just a synonym for a “classic” genus of it.
As a demonstration, we can once again consider the Zwolinski and Tomasi essay, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism.” As mentioned above, this essay has triggered endless rounds of debate over property absolutism adjudicated from priestly interpretations of the philosophy texts. But this is the wrong way to approach it. David Friedman approaches it from a better direction by insisting that Zwolinski and Tomasi refuse to define “Social Justice.” However, I would contend that the problem is not with their inability to define “Social Justice” but rather with their definition of “marginalized agents,” the ones who are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of the Social Justice Ends. As I discussed in my post, “The Social Justice of a Police State,” it is the marginalized who take the brunt of the Police State. Zwolinski and Tomasi, in response to Friedman, clarified that the “poor” are not really the poor per se. There are obligations attached to a moral claim of social justice. To qualify, you have to be willing to compete within the system. But this restriction, one that imposes an obligation on agents, changes the argument from a normative argument over property rights absolutism to a positive argument over the artificiality of political economy, since compliance to this thing, ex post, has now been made a condition for a social justice claim. And it is here where libertarianism and its positive methodology becomes relevant. If we can demonstrate–which we can using Public Choice–the high degree of artificiality of political economy, we can ask a simple question: why should compliance/obedience to this highly artificial construct be made a condition for social justice?
Even worse for Zwolinski: his claims that “lazy people” are not worthy of social justice opens himself up to the thorough rebuke by citing Thaddeus Russell’s recent historical exegesis of the relationship between “the American work ethic” and artificial American Political Economic Ends. The lesson from Russell’s groundbreaking positive historical scholarship: (1) work ethic often means compliance with political economic ends (2) do not conflate “laziness” with non-compliance (3) most of the personal freedoms we enjoy today originate from the defiance of non-compliant actors.
Bleeding Heart Libertarians, or at least the contingent represented by the likes of Zwolinksi, can deny the US is a Police State, deny the disqualifying artificiality of political economy(compliance then not being a condition of social justice but rather a condition of enslavement) and deny the historical importance of non-compliance in the face of moral claims of political obligation, but I would suggest that such a litany of denial disqualifies them from occupying a space in a coherent libertarian tradition.
What is this coherent libertarian tradition? Libertarianism inherits and derives from liberalism but it is not liberalism. The inheritance part is the view of the State as an artificial construct. The departure is the rejection of this artificial construct as a compliance mechanism. Indeed, if we historically allude to the original use of the term “libertarian”, it rejected both the State AND the liberal property bundle as artificial.
Frankly, it is really only in the United States, with the “individualist” tradition, that you found any great rooting of sympathy for the liberals ends of compliance: property. And it is the United States, in the 20th century, where we find libertarianism to somehow become associated with “classic liberalism.” A libertarian dispute over whether private property is a thing to be naturally complied with is an argument within a libertarian tradition that can be argued coherently between social and individualist anarchists. However, to say that libertarianism must admit both an acceptance of and a rejection of political obligation renders it utterly incoherent. Libertarianism then would more less admit anything as a valid argument. “Liberty as a political value” results in an endless array of point-counterpoint, “The libertarian argument for abortion” vs “The Libertarian case for pro-life,” The Libertarian case for immigration vs the libertarian case for restricted immigration,” The Libertarian case for individual mandate vs the libertarian case against,” The libertarian case for invasion of Iraq vs the Libertarian case for non-interventionism,” “The Libertarian case of Mitt Romney as the true Libertarian vs The Libertarian case for Mitt Romney as a Neoconservative fascist,” “The Libertarian case for Barack Obama vs the Libertarian case of Barack Obama as a commie bastard,” on an on, ad infinitum. Liberty as a political value will turn libertarian into a dirty word in the same way liberal has become one.
Outside of academia, “liberal” is a ubiquitous accusation that few will actually claim identity with. The irony is that US politics is dominated by communitarian politics. Communitarians despise and reject liberalism and hurl that word, “liberal,” as a political insult against one another. Liberty as a political value, which in our political context, means communitarian recognition, will attach the same fate to “libertarian:” an accusation officially relegated to the academic texts of a professional class.
The “Purity Test” means we have no normative case for Utopia. The “Coherence Test” means we do have a positive case for Dystopia.
1 Interestingly, form Public Choice Theory, the liberal state, in a sense, behaves “normally” when it is not particularly rational to vote, given the public goods problem of voting. Only in the case of obvious reform would it perhaps be “rational” to vote. The democratic process, then–in light of political rent-seeking–is more of a corrective action, or a constraint mechanism.