Gene Callahan and Libertarian Obligations

Gene Callahan, a former scholar at the Mises Institute and libertarian writer, has apparently repudiated libertarianism. Granted, I’m not at all that familiar with his work, but his critiques of libertarianism(he calls himself a recovering ideologue) are popping up in the libertarian blogs I read, so I decided to take a gander at his blog, Crash Landing. I found two entries that perhaps summarize his new found beef with libertarianism. The first being his latest entry, Obligation, the second being Confessions of Recovering Ideologue, Part I.

Let’s look at his “Obligation” post. He writes:

Obligation is the crucial idea denied by libertarian political theory. We can have obligations that we did not agree to take upon ourselves.

Here is David Walsh on that fact:

“The political is never merely an option, for we are embedded in a network of obligations before we even begin. This was the weak point of all social contract explanations of civil society, with their inevitable implication of the arbitrariness of a state founded on individual choice. Kant reminds us of the extent to which the state provides the conditions for the exercise of free choice and is thus beyond the realm of choice. We are obliged to support the political constitution under whose order we exist, not because we derive benefits from it or because we have given our consent, but because it is part of the order of being.” — The Modern Philosophical Revolution, p. 62.

Well, it’s true that Libertarian Justice, for the most part, is thin when it comes to impersonal duties–that is duties or obligations owed to no one–and primarily is concerned with enforcement, or dispute resolution, with respect to personal duties, that is, duties owed to each other. Callahan’s assertion that libertarianism denies obligations is not really correct. It is, no doubt true, however, that libertarianism is pretty skeptical about impersonal duty of obedience to the current political order, as if it were some law of nature. That’s why libertarianism is properly understood to be a left-wing political theory, and not a conservative one.

In “Confessions of a Recovering Ideologue,” Callahan states his objection to “Ideological Anarchism,” sees no distinction in the violence underlying enforcement of private property rights or the territorial property of the State, and blames anarchism for undermining the modern State.

But anarchism is just a mutant strain of the ideological bacillus that is causing the rapid degeneration of most modern societies. It is certainly not the cure for its fellow bacilli. Rather, the anarchist depiction of the State as nothing more than a street gang only serves to increase the amount of State coercion. The actual way forward towards a less coercive society consists not in de-legitimizing the State, but in legitimizing it, in other words, promoting voluntary compliance with the State’s laws in so far as they are just, and working to change them peacefully in so far as they are not. To the extent that anarchists recommend the State be ignored they thwart the former movement, and to the extent anarchists scorn participation in the current political process they prevent the latter.

In a sense, Callahan’s argument, in the above post, mirrors the the Mark Lilla argument the made the rounds at the same time, namely that libertarianism was the blame for the dysfunctional modern State. Lilla pinned the blame on the merging of the hippie counter culture with “free market economics.”

Callahan’s critique against libertarianism, from his point of view, I think boils down to his assertion that there is an impersonal duty to obey the State for the most part, and where the State is “unjust,” work through the system to change the laws. The NAP argument, or “coercion” argument” against the State is rejected by Callahan because he views the same type of coercion underlying enforcement of property rights. A Libertarian class critique of the political order is dismissed because the informal institutions of culture suffer from the same problems.

From my point of view, however, Callahan’s defense of the State is largely construed from pointing out “weaknesses” in libertarianism. However, I would point out that I can make a stronger case for libertarianism by pointing out the weaknesses of the State, particularly the evolving National Security State. Callahan can talk about obligations to obey the State, but what about any obligation not to remove yourself from the jurisdiction of the State. Callahan is silent on this, but libertarianism is not silent, because “right of exit” is fundamental to any libertarian political theory, and is the “ultimate out” when dealing with political or social failure. The Evolving national Security State is more or less moving to crush this right.

Callahan’s communitarian justification of the State has some glaring weaknesses. In his “Obligations” post, he resorts to making a social institutional claim for the legitimacy of the State, but in his earlier post regarding “Ideology,” he rants about the cultural scourge that is undercutting this very legitimacy. Blame this on whatever you want to blame it on, but Callahan’s rants against libertarianism destroying this underlying cultural legitimacy doesn’t exactly solve the “communitarian dilemma” here. Finally, Callahan’s appeal to some “Kantian” duty to obey the State is belied by the simple fact that he can’t, in practice, obey it. He is a criminal; he is guilty everyday of committing multiple federal crimes, just as all of us are. This is the empirical reality of the liberal “rule of law.” Hobbes, in his social contract theory, dismissed politics in lieu of the “leviathan” because of the prospect of positive law, which he advocated, being in the hands of a political ruling class. Callahan, in the end, like the rest of us, mutters his prayers nightly to whatever god of choice that he doesn’t become the object of the aggressive, arbitrary prosecutorial power of the State. If he claims he doesn’t, then he must feel himself privileged among men.

There is no libertarian obligation to be resigned to the fact that you are a criminal…


4 thoughts on “Gene Callahan and Libertarian Obligations

  1. “That’s why libertarianism is properly understood to be a left-wing political theory, and not a conservative one.”
    The right and the left are both nonsense. The idea that anyone could have any ‘duty’ which is not determined by their self-interest is mystical Kantian gibberish, whether one portrays it as ‘family’ or ‘equal authority’.
    Left-libertarianism is getting really old.

    In regards to Gene, his problems stem precisely from the fact that he has accepted some sort of collectivist ethic.

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