Arnold Kling  

Natural Libertarians?

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Lee Harris pens a provocative essay.

To natural libertarians, there can be no more existential conflict than the one they face today. Are they destined to perish from the earth along with their cherished cultural and religious traditions, pushed aside by those who claim to champion progress but who in fact promote learned helplessness in the general population, however benevolent their intentions? Will the natural libertarians' roadblock to serfdom simply be brushed aside without a fight? Or will these roadblocks turn into barricades, to be manned by those who are willing to make the last sacrifice to preserve their spirit of independence?

Like Arthur Brooks, Harris posits a battle between plain folks who instinctively value freedom and elites who believe that plain folks need the state to protect and regulate them. How can this view be reconciled with Brink Lindsey's project of stressing the commonality between liberalism and libertarianism?

Presumably, liberaltarians would see cultural and religious traditions as something to be rebelled against, not "cherished." Lindsey probably would want to make a case that liberals are better candidates for natural libertarians than are conservatives.

I think that most people resent being told what to do, and yet such people are not libertarians when it comes to other people being told what to do. I have a stronger criterion for natural libertrianism. When you see other people doing something that really offends you, are you willing to see the state allow that behavior to continue? Only if you can answer "yes" are you a natural libertarian. I think that there are very few natural libertarians.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Joe Teicher writes:

I wonder if anyone meets your criteria. I don't think you do. You are offended by the behavior of the largest financial institutions and want the state to break them up.

Can't a natural libertarian just be someone who isn't easily offended by the consensual activities of adults? I am not particularly offended by anything that is legal in the US today, and I am offended that many activities that are no one's business but that participants are illegal or heavily regulated. Therefore, my policy preferences are very libertarian compared to the status quo. On the other hand, the set of illegal activities that I think are offensive and that I think should remain illegal is non-empty.

My moral intuitions are heavily libertarian but according to your strict definition I am not a natural libertarian.

Zdeno writes:

Reminds me of Robin Hanson's True Tolerance. And no, there are not many truly tolerant people.

Speaking of the obvious, at what point do we conclude that the mainstream libertarian movement has completely and utterly failed and should be discarded? Let Brink Lindsey and the rest of the liberaltarian brigade assimilate into the left, and the rest of us can get to work on some sort of alternative.

Adam writes:


Thanks for a great definition of a natural libertarian. It's only weakness is that it depends on introspection. People often fail in honest introspection and, even if they're successful, they may detect incentives for misstatement of their introspection.

Nevertheless, it's a very quotable definition. I hope I remember it:

"When you see other people doing something that really offends you, are you willing to see the state allow that behavior to continue?"

Joey Donuts writes:

I'd be willing to let the state permit behavior that I find offensive, but I wouldn't necessarily let the behavior lack consequences. For example, People litter my neighbors property. He rarely if ever sees this segment of his property. I, however, see it every day. Occasionally I clean it without charging my neighbor. Would a fine by the state for littering be appropriate here? You can litter but it isn't free. Would that exclude me as a natural libertarian?

Jim Ancona writes:

Joe Teicher, I don't see Arnold as being offended by the behavior of large financial institutions. If anything, I assume he's more offended (if that's the word) by gov't bailing them out. I see a breakup as a way to reduce both the need and temptation for intervention when things go bad.


Phil writes:

I think Joe Teicher (first comment) is onto something.

By Arnold's definition, most people see heroin use, get offended at the immorality, and demand it be made illegal. Again by Arnold's defintion, libertarians see heroin use, get offended at the immorality, and do NOT demand that it be made illegal. That last definition doesn't really match most libertarians, does it?

As Joe says, I think most libertarians, upon seeing heroin use, simply do not get offended at all. They think, "that looks like a bad idea to me, but (shrug) he has a right to do whatever he wants with his body, so, whatever."

Non-libertarians have a stronger incentive to be offended -- it signals and justifies their desire to control. "I am offended by X" is a huge signal that someone is very un-libertarian.

I would rephrase Arnold as:

"When you see other people doing something that you think is bad for them, are you willing to see the state allow that behavior to continue?"

Ted writes:

In general, elites are almost invariably a minority. Thus, it stands to reason, that in a democracy elites cannot have significant influence. If the "common" people wanted individual freedom and choice and didn't want restrictions imposed on them by elites they wouldn't elect politicians who do so. Thus, non-elites must desire paternalism as well. If you want to argue they are stupid and just don't vote correctly, fine, but if they are such idiots that they are unable to express their preferences correctly then that probably strengthens the case for paternalism.

And on the final question, it depends what they are doing. Assuming they aren't doing an action that harms someone else, I'm probably going to allow it. The only real exception I could think of is if the person is harming themselves (like trying to commit suicide) and they are clearly unstable and irrational (I do not accept you cannot rationally commit suicide, and my criteria for "rational suicide" is much less stringent that most psychologists).

Matt C writes:

Harris comments at one point about responding to ideas from the head or the heart. Liberaltarianism (as I understand it) is a project of appealing to the head--preferably the heads of liberal opinion makers. The Tea Party is a movement of the heart--people raising a ruckus because they're getting the shaft from Our Benevolent Leaders.

I think they can both be valid approaches to increasing freedom. I'm not super optimistic about either one, but yanno, take what you can get.

Zdeno, if you're tired of political activism, there's the seasteaders, the free state movement, and probably still the crypto-anarchists. What are you looking for?

Troy Camplin writes:

I think his larger point stands that we can either internalize or externalize our problems, and that our culture helps to determine which people tend to do. Those who are "natural libertarians" as he defines them are in fact more able to be persuaded to be political libertarians than are the ones who have been turned into victims. This is a profound point that can point us toward what kinds of things we could and should be doing to promote the kind of culture that creates far, far more natural libertarians than victims.

Tom West writes:

I have to disagree with Arnold's basic premise. I find more people are offended at the idea when government allows them to make bad, life-threatening decisions.

Being entirely responsible for one's own life is tiresome business. We pay a lot of taxes to the government to not have to worry whether this food is safe, this doctor is competent, this drug works, etc.., etc..

I've general found that when society is moving a certain direction, it's because most people want it moving that way. As Tyler has said, when people get wealthy, one of the things they tend to want to buy is more government.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

By these criteria, I think my dad is the most natural libertarian I have ever known. Either this, or he has just had lots of grumpy thoughts about people that he never voiced out loud.

Chris Koresko writes:

I'm going to make the case that a large fraction of conservatives would fall into Arnold's definition of Natural Libertarians. I don't have any actual data (which would be poll numbers, I suppose) to back this up, but if enough people seem interested I will take the time to search for it. My argument draws on an example that some rely on to argue that conservatives are not libertarian.

Most conservatives believe (I think) that homosexual sex is immoral, and (I also think) that the right to bear arms is fundamental to the basic human right of self-defense. But while conservatives have pushed hard to defend the 2nd Amendment as an individual right like the most of the rest of the Bill of Rights, far less resources have gone to support the sodomy laws which have recently been repealed or overturned in many parts of the U.S.

I believe that the reason is this: while the 2nd Amendment is a protection against coercion by government, the anti-sodomy laws enable or require such coercion. For most conservatives it's much more natural to take the position that regulation of an immoral private act (i.e., an act which causes no direct harm to a non-consenting third party) is not an appropriate activity for government. This does not mean that conservatives won't criticize or even ostracize those who admit to committing such acts; it only means that the use of coercion against the individuals involved tends to be regarded with skepticism and suspicion.

Note that I do not believe it is correct to argue that opposition to homosexual marriage is grounds to consider conservatism to be in conflict with libertarianism. This is because such a marriage is less like a right for the particular couple involved (who would be free in any case to behave like a married couple in private regardless of their officially-recognized status) than it is like government coercion of the private individuals and organizations that couple interacts with: it forces private parties to treat the couple as married even if moral or social considerations militate strongly against that. Thus I would argue that the principled libertarian position on gay marriage, as for other coercive social engineering projects, is opposition.

Tracy W writes:

Chris Koresko - state recognition of marriages is important for those situations where there is some doubt about whether two people were actually married. Say for example two flatmates, one of whom belongs to a religious sect with unusual opinions about medical treatment. Something goes wrong with the other flatmate, who winds up in a coma, incapable of making medical decisions for themself. The religious flatmate claims that the two of them were secretly married, and thus she's next-of-kin and thus has decision-making rights. The parents claim that she's making it up and they're the next of kin. The patient is incapalbe of indicating anything. The parents and flatmate want fundamentally conflicting medical treatments. Whose wishes should the hospital legally follow?

Or take the case of a rich widower who hires a live-in housekeeper. Some years he dies of natural causes. The housekeeper claims they were secretly married and thus she's entitled to a share of his property, his kids claim that she's lying. What should the legal system do?

A marriage contract signed, witnessed, and registered with the government before one party is incapacitated is not impossible to fake, but it does provide some guidance to the legal system for situations where one party has an incentive to claim a marriage exists and another an incentive to deny it.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

I don't like the libertarian label, but I believe I'd fit the natural libertarian definition given by Arnold. On marriage, I don't ask why homosexual marriage should/should not be sanctioned, I ask why it's the state's business at all what contracts people get into, so I want the state to stay the hell out of all marriages. None of their beeswax.

But the choice of state v. non-state is too restrictive. I believe in the common law, and I believe in neutral conflict resolution done by a judge applying known legal rules and procedures, based on precedence and custom. I don't believe in statutory mandates passed by majoritarian decision procedures. Like Wicksell, I believe political decision making should be limited by the unanimity rule, or something as close to it as possible.

There are alternative ways of making public policies than through majoritarian statutory legislation or executive rule making. My political goals would be to reduce both to the absolute minimum, and allow local societies to form that would resolve their problems in accordance with custom and common law. With Madison, I don't believe there should be much for Washington or the US Congress to do at all, but that does not mean that I don't believe in an ordered society. I just want different collective choice procedures.

BZ writes:

Let's get right down to it. Robin Hansens example of the "crusher" videos is pretty grotesque, but doesn't go far enough. Consider infant pornography, but make a bit of a mental leap to separate the act from the recordings. Now, are you still tolerant?

Your find that your local video store has this crap on the shelf. Do you call the cops?

Mary Ruwart, who is my favorite living libertarian, lost the LP nomination when she offended the right-wing by refusing to advocate violent force to rid the world of such "entertainment" filth.

Where do you stand?

Chris Koresko writes:

@Tracy W: Thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful response. You don't directly address my claim that most conservatives would fall into the "natural libertarians" category, but you raise a couple of interesting points which I'll try to answer here.

I'd like to note that both of your examples arguing for state registration of marriages involve secrets being kept by the couple that need to be revealed when one of them is dead or incapacitated. But the traditional definition of marriage explicitly contains an announcement to the family and friends as well as the broader community. I can think of maybe one case of a genuine secret marriage (that I saw in a movie which was supposedly historical), and that marriage was done by a priest (so the moral authority was satisfied) and kept secret from others only because announcing it would have put the couple in immediate jeopardy of losing their lives. Not something that's likely to happen at a significant rate in modern America, so probably not a strong argument.

Perhaps more to the point, people who might be concerned about state action in your two examples might handle it more straightforwardly with a "living will" and a regular will, respectively, no?

Ryan writes:

Are we discussing this in entire theory or reality?

- Does the heroin addict go to the ER after s/he overdoses? Is the ER obligated to take care of him/er?

- I like to go fishing. Do we believe that humans are self-regulatory in nature? Should I ask a buffalo?

To me, it's not doing something that really offends [me], but it is, doing something that negatively impacts my life. I could give two flips who you sleep with, marry, or what drugs you use, but if there aren't any Red fish to be caught, then that's when I start to care.

wlu2009 writes:

I think Ryan hits it right on the head. The post assumes the only negative externality to other people's behavior is offense. When in reality there are many, many more much harmful externalities that he mentions (health care costs, lack of sport and recreation for others and future generations). I completely agree that the offense test may be a good litmus test for natural libertarians, but there may be other reasons for government prohibition or intervention if behavior imposes real, non-offense costs on others.

Troy Camplin writes:

Have a free market in health care, and your objection there is nullified. Hold people responsible for their behaviors, regardless of whether or not they are on drugs, drunk, etc., and that takes care of your other objections.

4% of all Americans are sociopaths, but they make up 20% of people in prison. Thus sociopathy is a stronger indication of criminal behavior than drug use. We can test people to learn if they are in fact sociopaths. Would you recommend making sociopathy illegal? Surely if we locked up all the sociopaths, our crime rates would go down quite a bit. Is the idea of locking up people who haven't yet committed a crime offensive to you? It is to me. Yet we recommend it for drug users who haven't committed any sort of crime (other than the bogus one of drug possession/use) on the simple argument that they "might." Worse, most of the crimes committed by drug users is due precisely to their being illegal. So make them legal, and most of the drug-related crimes go away. Yet, still, the drug warriors want to lock up drug users and not sociopaths, though the latter group is clearly far more dangerous. Why is locking them up a blow to liberty (which it is), but locking up drug users isn't?

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