Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Philosoblog continues to try to discover the exact nature of the values that Americans rightly hold dear. A year ago today we learned how fragile and precious those values are. In tribute to the victims of the bombing, Philosoblog presses on in its effort to nurture, polish, and clarify these values. It is now obvious how astonishingly fortunate we are to have them.

Limits of Libertarianism I

The fundamental value of libertarianism is a good one. As long as one isn’t harming anyone else, or freeloading off of others in any way, one should have the right to do as one pleases. America threw off the noose of subjection to another’s will, especially taxation without representation, for good reason. People ought to be able to live the way they like. One has no duty to serve others unless one has contracted to do so. However, there are limits to the libertarian value. There are three kinds of case in which libertarians wrongly cling to it.

The first limit is found when we notice that there is a duty to help the very unfortunate. The limit may be found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan sees that he has a duty to help a severely injured person by the side of the road. Libertarians handle the case by admitting that there is a duty to give aid but that no one may be forced to fulfill this duty. The idea is that there is a duty to aid others, but the duty may not be enforced. However, this is not correct. Consider a case in which someone will plummet to his death unless he leans, without getting permission, on a nearby stranger’s shoulder in order to regain his balance. The stranger has no right to pull his shoulder away. The fact becomes clearer when we consider the following case. Suppose the Good Samaritan, having no water, were unable to help a man dying of thirst through no fault of his own. Suppose a third party passing by had plenty of water, enough to waste, yet would not offer any to the dying man. It would be permissible for the Good Samaritan to take a serving of water from the third party in order to save the dying man. If resisted, the Samaritan would have the right to apply force. Hence, taxation of the rich to support a minimal welfare net may be compelled by force.

This is a matter of degree: socialist egalitarianism goes too far to one side, while pure libertarianism goes too far to the other. Libertarians contend that we should adhere to pure libertarianism because departing from it leads to a slippery slope. But the slippery “road to serfdom,” as Hayek calls it, has not been found. We’re not serfs in America. How long are we to wait before Hayek’s argument is to be considered refuted? Slippery slope arguments are often invalid for the simple reason that people are intelligent enough to be able to limit the magnitude of their actions. There is a slippery slope argument that says that America should be a communist dictatorship by now, given that it is not a fully libertarian state. The fact that the U.S. government spends too much, taxes too much, and interferes with people’s lives too much does not prove that Hayek is right. For we have pulled in the reigns and can do so again. All it shows is that we are failing to pull the reigns in enough at this point in time. So, Hayek’s slippery slope argument is more of a scare tactic than an argument for libertarianism. Albeit it does have merit, in serving to keep us on our toes and to call us to the task of reigning in government grown too big.

The second limit to libertarianism is encountered when national security is in jeopardy. As David Hume said, “[A] regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinate to a reverence for established government” since the latter is “essential to [the former’s] very existence.” Refusal to recognize the gravity of a threat can be dangerous. The difficulty in hitting the right mark comes in balancing the threat from democratically overseen law enforcement officials against continuing threats from evildoers (common criminals) and emergent threats (unusual attacks by terrorists). Libertarians tend to be close to absolute aversion to risking the former threat and are thus rendered unwilling to recognize that exposure to the latter threat jeopardizes the liberties they so zealously seek to protect. When the question lies between the duty to protect innocents from evildoers and the duty to avoid ostracizing innocents and stripping them of their freedoms, libertarians are prone to fixate on the latter and shirk the former. But there may be cases in which this will result in their fulfilling neither duty.

The question is one of degree. An Orwellian “big brother” state is to be avoided, as are catastrophic breaches of security. There are shades of gray in between, and there is no general calculus to be used to find the right point. It isn’t clear whether the dispute between libertarians and others is a dispute over the facts relevant to deciding what is right or a genuine moral disagreement. If the former is the case, then it may be that libertarians don’t see that security cannot be maintained well enough without more flexibility in liberty rights than they would countenance. If the dispute is a case of the latter, then it may be that the libertarian contention that we have a moral duty to “live free or die” is false in many cases.

Suppose the latter is the case, and the libertarian maintains that liberty should not be sacrificed, no matter what the risk. That is clearly untenable. No libertarian would walk through fire or, having eradicated the law-enforcement bodies of our country, walk in any downtown late at night. Absolutism about liberty is untenable. Therefore, when special security threats arise that are on the order of fire or a city devoid of law enforcement at night, libertarians need to explain why they would oppose any sacrifice of liberty in order to combat the threat. This usually involves appealing to defensive measures other than those that deprive us of liberty. For example, libertarians might support the War on Terror but oppose stiff surveillance measures, such as the FBI’s discovering which books a suspected terrorist has bought or checked out of a library, or holding enemy combatants without charge. It’s not clear why these measures are grave dangers to our liberty while ordinary police surveillance is not.

Since the issue is a matter of degree, and there is no general rule that libertarians are putting forth which I can assail, the objection I’m making can only be a vague one. The point is this. You will find libertarians voicing strong opposition to the government’s taking security measures that require reduction of liberty. Be very careful. Is there sufficient argument to support this opposition? One of America’s greatest achievements is to protect its citizens from oppression by law-enforcement authorities. But this does not mean that we should never sacrifice any of our liberty for security. We already sacrifice quite a bit of it by maintaining a police force.

The third limit of libertarianism has to do with the protection of culture. The tendency of libertarianism is to overlook the fragility and maintenance requirements of traditional values. Anti-authoritarianism can be taken too far. If moderate authoritarianism is the view that there are important and fragile values that have stood the test of time, failed to be shown mistaken in open democratic debate, and therefore need to be protected against the will of a minority, then such an authoritarian, call it “conservative,” has its merits. The American Revolution avoided the mob rule of the French Revolution by building a stable structure of government with checks and balances of power, instead of merely tearing down government. But America, in its libertarian zeal, embraced the Enlightenment credo that reason alone will show the way to good lives. In this sense, America tore down more than it should have. It was not, and is not, conservative enough.

Of course, conservatism is a matter of degree. Unreflectively accepting all of a cultural tradition and then stringently forcing in on everyone within one’s society is clearly wrong. Moderation lies in vigilantly looking for evidence of bad values within one’s tradition and moderating the degree of force with which one enforces the values of a tradition. In other words, moderate conservatism avoids dogmatism and paternalism. Yet, it is conservative. It maintains certain traditional ways of life and not others, even when there is no full proof that those ways are not as good.

We are already conservative and anti-libertarian in some ways. Even those of us who don’t have a complete understanding of why it is important to learn history and read literature in high school think these subjects should be required. We shake hands, open doors for one another, value the institution of marriage, and scoff at communes, all without knowing exactly why we should do so. There is a plethora of ways in which our lives are shaped by tradition and which we trust as good without knowing why they are good.

Libertarianism tends to undermine these efforts by pushing us farther than we need to go to avoid dogmatism and paternalism. The third limit of libertarianism would sanction a libertarian stance only to the extent it is necessary to avoid those to undesirable traits. There are two ways in which libertarianism goes to far: in demanding that government not support cultural traditions and intending to undermine private support of traditions. The libertarian objects to the government taking his money and supporting someone else’s choice of a tradition. He believes that the minority are being oppressed when taxes at the majority’s behest in order to fund cultural programs. That there must be a limit to this stance if it is not to reach the absurd is evident from the fact that it will otherwise commit us to the abolition of public schooling, as schools support cultural traditions. The more radical libertarian is even against private, non-governmental agents’ making efforts to spread their values. The town full of clubs that won’t have members who drink is an example, as is the orchestra that won’t play experimental or popular works, even if some of its members desire to do so.

It is permissible, and in many instances morally obligatory for the government and private agents to maintain traditions that have stood the test of time and seemed to make good lives. The reason is simple. Only a minority of people in a society will have the wisdom to see the value of its tradition, and if they don’t move to protect it, it will expire. Good ways of life are not always effortlessly maintained. People are far from perfectly wise. Great cultures can end. Such endings are evil since what comes afterwards is usually lives that are not, though they might have been, good. They often need discipline from the voice of authority. When people have the power and the wisdom to protect a valuable tradition, they should. That this is true to at least some extent may be observed in the fact that a man who decided to stop the practice of shaking hands, saying please, and holding doors should be socially censured by others. They needn’t respect the differing view of the minority. A way of life is usually good beyond the ken of the people who live it, and they should protect it even so.

Obviously, libertarians are right that people should be allowed to do as they wish, as long as they aren’t harming anyone else. Nevertheless, it is not wrong for the government to tax them to support ways of life of which they do not approve, if the taxation is supported by democratically elected leaders who choose wisely which traditions to support. It may be that governmental support of culture is more efficient than leaving it to the private sector, and the difference in efficiency may be crucial to preserving a tradition. The minority’s dissent is outweighed, just as it is in the case of parents who desire their children not to have to learn Western history and literature.

There is good reason, therefore, to prefer moderate authoritarianism, or conservatism, to libertarianism. The only question is where the limit lies. Here I can only gesture at a few points, and no general rule can be given. State-funded museums and concerts in which traditional art and music are supported, and state funding of a performance of Antigone, for example, are cases in which the minority’s dissent is outweighed. The minority may be the libertarian who doesn’t want to part with his money, or the immigrant who wants the culture of the country he left to be funded, as well. In either case, we are asked to allow our culture to erode for the sake of a minority’s preference. The potential result is a country with no culture to speak of, and the destruction of the cultural key to good lives. This is such a weighty matter that the minority’s wishes are outweighed. If there are cases in which state funding is crucially more efficient than leaving the matter up to the private sector, then the taxation and state funded cultural programs are right. This being so, pressure in the private sector meant to support the country’s tradition is right, as well. Private social pressure may be exerted in support of a tradition. Ways of life that diverge from the tradition may rightly be censured (provided that the censure is polite and reasoned). Only in cases in which the divergent way of life has been proven to cohere, rather than conflict with, the traditional way is the censure wrongfully oppressive. Homosexuality is an example of such an innocent divergence that should not be censured. A wildly promiscuous sexual habit is not. Zen Buddhism is an example. Requiring all women in a household to be covered from head to toe is not, nor is the habit of frequently using hard drugs. The social circle in an apartment complex that excludes homosexuals and the local Zen Buddhist is narrow and pig-headed. Its exclusion of the promiscuous, the family that requires the burka, and the drug addict is not.

Of course, libertarians will argue that the state is bad at selecting cultural programs. Bureaucrats choose awful culture to promote, they will say. This may be. But it is beside the point. It merely reminds us that in entrusting the state to support culture, we are taking the risk that leaders may not be wise and may fail. What libertarians would have to prove is that the private sector has a better record than the state. Then there would be an empirical, practical reason to entrust the task to the private sector. But there is no philosophical principle sufficient to rule out government support of one culture over others. The point of the third limit is that there is a depth of wisdom in Western culture that individuals can’t reinvent with every generation but must merely trust, uphold, and pass on to the next generation. The upholding and the passing on are authoritarian in nature, and if the government is able to contribute, it should be enlisted in the effort. America trusts liberty distrusts tradition too much. (Thomas Jefferson wrongly praised the mob rule of the French Revolution.) Realizing this fact, and its perfect consistency with the maxim “question authority,” will help prevent the catastrophic erosion of our culture.

American values are libertarian. They are Jeffersonian. They are the values of self-reliance, complete liberty, and self-direction. The American will not be forced to work for others, he will not be scared into sacrificing his liberty, and he will not listen to elitists who tell him how to live. But American values also include the awareness of the propriety of caring for the unfortunate. And American values are not only Jeffersonian but also those of John Adams, though less so, unfortunately. Americans are at least dimly aware of the magnitude of evil that the wicked amongst us are capable of, the utter lack of any right of the wicked to share in American liberty, and the prudence of our sacrificing some of our own liberty in order to protect ourselves from the wicked. Americans also know that there are old, wise traditions that the uneducated cannot match.

Here we have only broached the issues. In the future, Philosoblog will examine each limit separately. We will look at the extent and kind of welfare net that we ought to provide. We will discuss the details of the security-liberty tension, including a review of John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts, so germane as they are today, given the presence of America haters and terrorist sleeper cells in the country for the foreseeable future. And we will also examine the manner and extent to which the traditional culture of America ought to be preserved and favored.