The Argument for Liberty

This month, The Boston Review is featuring a Libertarianism and Liberty discussion on the failure of liberty as a rational foundation for libertarian public policy.

The starting point:

Libertarians embrace liberty as their fundamental starting point. From this, they advocate a program of limited government and lower taxes.

But it’s not clear how they get from their starting point to their policy conclusion.

TM Scanlon begins the discussion with the essay, How Not to Argue for Limited Government and Lower Taxes. Writes Scanlon:

Libertarianism presents itself as a simple, clear, and principled view. It appears to provide a moral basis, in the value of individual liberty, for a specific political program of limited government and low taxes. The moral significance of liberty seems obvious even to those who believe it is not the only thing that matters. But the claim of the libertarian political program to be founded on this value is illusory. Three lines of thought lead to conclusions that might be seen as libertarian. But none of these shows that respect for the value of individual liberty should lead one to support the political program of low taxes and limited government that libertarians are supposed to favor.

Scanlon then proceeds to argue that neither market utilitarianism, personal autonomy, nor non-interference serve as normative grounds for libertarian policy. I as a libertarian, offer no rebuttal on this point. I don’t dispute that there is no normative case for liberty as a political value. I consistently have made that point myself and have argued that you cannot dress up the new wine of libertarianism in the old wine skins of liberal categories. These categories failed liberalism and they burst under any attempt by latter 20th century american libertarians to re-cast libertarianism in terms of them.

But Scanlon has his own problem, namely the failure of liberal categories to provide normative grounds for why we should obey the State. Historically, since libertarianism rejected the social contract, I don’t see much of a problem presented by debunking a liberal recasting of libertarianism within the social contract. However, for Scanlon, who accepts the social contract, he has a real problem when I can point out that the reality of National Security State obliterates any moral foundation of this social contract.

Scanlon is noted for his moral foundation of “What We Owe to Each Other.” But the National Security State presents an empirical dilemma regarding this moral legitimacy of the State. Either “What We Owe to Each Other” is in such dispute that enforcement of these obligations requires a massive security/intelligence State, which demonstrates that the social contract is not rooted in any moral agreement/recognition, but rather pure force. Or, if there is a contention of moral agreement/recognition, then we have the equally disturbing problem of a huge superfluous security organs not in any way morally rooted in the necessity of the social contract. Either way, the legitimacy of the State, from a contractarian standpoint, is called into question. And Scanlon must deal with the problem that there is no convincing normative case for moral obligation(or duty) as a political value.

Admittedly, I am highly influenced by Anthony de Jasay, who argues the point of the “presumption of liberty.” If liberalism demonstrates that it, in the end, it offers no real constraints against moral claims of authority by the State–which the national Security State demonstrates–then the only relevant political argument is a (presumption of liberty) vs (presumption of authority). This was actually the conclusion drawn by the radical 19th century libertarians. With de Jasay, however, you have the added argument, in the 20th century context, that the presumption of liberty is a requirement for the epistemology of the scientific method.

The radical libertarian rejoinder to Scanlon is to point out the rejection of the premise of liberty as a normative political value. Instead, the libertarian political critique is rooted in the repudiation of the moral authority of political institutions themselves. Once we understand this to be the actual libertarian political critique, we understand how we can get from here to there: via the collapse of trust in political institutions.


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