Home > Domestic Policy > Was "liberty" ever here?

Was "liberty" ever here?

I must say, there’s something I don’t get about sentiments like this.

Libertarians dislike coercion, meaning government compelling them to do something they don’t want to do. This typically involves taxes paying for various facets of the welfare state. And while most of our political discourse is pragmatic – involving solutions to problems and debating their effectiveness – this view includes philosophical arguments about how big government should be (using government as proxy for coercion, that is).

Here’s what I don’t understand. A society with rules acceptable (generally, not absolutely) to libertarians has never existed. Not only has it never existed, I don’t believe it’s even been attempted. Even if you regard this country at its inception as close, the current welfare state (or even a more minimal version of it) is hardly unconstitutional. Yes, I know people make those arguments, but I haven’t seen a convincing one.

Further, the prospect that such a society could exist seems dismal. We’re social creatures. We are equipped to exist in a society with inter-dependencies and rules of conduct for the benefit of as many members of that as possible. Put crudely, Doug may be annoyed that he’s coerced into supporting certain policies, but they don’t threaten his livelihood. Removing welfare state policies will threaten the livelihoods of people (whether you think that’s morally correct situation or not). A libertarian would probably take issue with that, but remember that all I really need for that argument is the perception or short term realization of a threat. And does anyone really think libertarians could win an election on a platform of abolishing medicare and social security? They’d be demagogued right out the door.

With that state of affairs, how can we get very far from the welfare state? There’s an upper limit (which is far from where we are, given that Europe is still rolling along) and there’s a lower limit (perhaps closer to our current state), but a libertarian society is not within that range.

So given that this is an exercise in futility, why the complaining? If your preferred model of society is simply an impossibility, doesn’t that suggest a problem with your preference? The end result of communism sounds wonderful, but given that it’s an unworkable model of society, why would you advocate for it?

It’s not like I’m saying libertarianism should be ejected from the public sphere. Arguing for smaller government policies will always be one side of an argument and it will be right sometimes (how often you think so would be a determinant of your political worldview). You could get fairly close to a libertarian model regarding social and cultural issues, given that there’s less in the way of direct negative consequences for removing coercion and the arguments seem generally fuzzier.

I’m just saying, if your philosophical starting point for a model of society is “get the hell out of my business,” you’re doomed to failure. It’s simply not workable.

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Categories: Domestic Policy
  1. October 13, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    An excellent rebuttal if I’ve ever read one. All I can really add is that I fully recognize that my philosophy (however poorly presented or even understood) is doomed to failure. Bitching to the world (or to the small collection of masochists who read my stuff) to get off my lawn isn’t an attempt to do much of anything. So what’s the point? Well, most days there isn’t any. I just enjoy the medium. Of course, with the silly season upon us, there hasn’t been a lot of enjoyment to be had, so your post here was a breath of fresh air. Thanks for that.

  2. October 13, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Glad you liked it. I understand pointless bitching on a blog (nearly every one of my posts about religion falls into that category). This was aimed more at people who base their political ideology on an opposition to coercion and then attempt to seriously advocate for policies using that as a foundation. I just used your post as a jumping off point.

  3. October 14, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Just FYI, when I tried to post that comment last night and I got to the CAPTCHA requirement, I couldn’t see the CAPTCHA, just ‘chaptcha.jpg’. I figured my response was lost into the ether. I’m not sure if that was because of the machine I was using (Linux), the browser I was using (firefox) or because of something going on here. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was something on my end, my skilz are up there with homer simpson, but I thought I should let you know nonetheless. I’m using a windows machine for this comment, so we’ll see how it goes.

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