Libertarian Democraphobia

If you're a new-school classical liberal (neoclassical liberal?) like me, you like democracy just fine. This puts you somewhere between (a) modern liberals in the post-Rawlsian vein who tend toward not-actually-very-liberal Rousseuvian romanticism about democracy and (b) libertarians who tend toward often not-very-liberal renunciations of democracy. I want to talk about these libertarians. Here are some off-the-cuff (that means disorganized) thoughts.

First, I think it's important to recognize that libertarian democraphobia often comes from a deeply liberal place. The libertarian non-coercion principle is a good abstract first approximation of the liberal presupposition that persons are free and equal. No one has a natural right to rule over another, and no one has a natural duty to obey. The liberal presupposition sets a high bar for the justification of coercion, and thus the justification of the state. Many libertarians think there is no justification. Therefore the only acceptable rule of collective choice is unanimity or full consensus. This is one focus of the debate between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians. On the anarchist side, political power cannot get off the ground, and thus the design of mechanisms to control political power is a non-issue. On the limited-statist side, political power does get off the ground, and thus so does the design of constitutions and democratic institutions. I think this divide is far wider than is reflected in the libertarian community, and part of the reason is that limited-government libertarians tend to internalize more of the anarchist framework than they logically should.

In any case, libertarians often display a confusing or confused reaction to democracy as it actually exists. The scheme laid out in most libertarian ideal theory is so distant from actual democratic practice that the whole existing system can seem by comparison a comprehensive injustice. When one's ideal theory implies that politics is by its nature illegitimate and corrupt, one tends to develop a sharply disapproving attitude toward participation in politics. Lots of libertarians, for example, think it's morally wrong to vote. (There are many structural reasons the Libertarian Party is hopeless, but here's one reason libertarians tend to be at best half-hearted political activists.) Likewise, incrementalist approaches to policy can never be adequately pure from the perspective of radical libertarian ideal theory. School vouchers are still tax-financed; a system of mandatory personal retirement accounts has a restriction on economic liberty at its heart; and so on. So, not only is politics corrupt and corrupting. There are few democratically feasible libertarian policies that merit support. The public does not want libertarianism. Which means that the public does not want a system that respects fundamental rights. So much the worse for the public, the thinking tends to go.

The confused radical libertarian response is to more or less agree with all of this, and then decide to vote for the Republican because he promises lower taxes or whatever. Whatever else you can say about Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel's wholesale rejection of politics in favor of flight to a DIY frontier, it is not confused or incoherent. It is to reject the terms of the local democratic game by exercising the exit option. It's what the Pilgrims did. It's what the Mormons did. The difference is that there's no more ready-made frontier left to settle. And I truly wish them the best of luck.

But I don't think they take seriously enough the problem of governance in the DIY frontier. One can avoid politics and democratic conflict in the short-run through self-segregation. But this tends not to last that long. (See: the Pilgrims in Massachusets; the Mormons in Deseret/Utah) And I have questions about how well the Friedman plan can scale, as newcomers come to the settled frontier, and as pioneers raise children who do not share the consensus of the initial settlement. Sooner or later the problem of pluralism and moral disagreement will rear its head, and there are liberal and illiberal ways to respond. If the response is to maintain the consensus of self-segregation by evicting inevitable dissidents, one begins to wonder what to call those with the power to evict. At a certain point, the differences between a sovereign monarch and a monopoly landlord becomes semantic.

Anyway, not to rehearse Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but I think the prospects for avoiding something like a state are slim. And I think it would be better to design a democratic structure in advance, rather than morphing into a neo-fuedal landlord/tenant model of territorial governance, or trying to cobble together an adequate constitution when the original system starts to break down. Of course, the point of the DIY frontier for its present advocates is precisely to demonstrate that society without politics is possible. So to recommend a democratic constitution at the outset is just to express pessimism about a project meant to show this pessimism unfounded. And why argue when you can experiment? Let's do the experiment!

Now, as I've argued before, I think the anarchist is right about the minarchist: once you accept the public goods argument for state protection of various rights, you have accepted that there are no fully voluntary solutions to certain collective action problems, and you're logic-bound to ride the public goods argument as far as it takes you, which is further than the minarchist thinks. And you have accepted that it is possible to justify a break from a full consensus or unanimity rule. You're going to have to settle on a collective decision procedure that can determine what is and is not going to count as a public good, how much it will cost to pay for these goods, what the scheme of public finance is going to be, etc. You have agreed to politics, and there is no guarantee things are always going to your way. I fully accept all of this. And I think other neo-classical liberals (other moderate limited-government libertarians) could do much better at fully facing up to their implicit buy-in to democratic politics. This doesn't mean giving up idealistic disenchantment with the current dispensation, or giving up hard-headed views on the limits of democracy, but it does mean taking democracy seriously, and I think that means taking more responsibility for public opinion.

Which brings us to Thiel's boneheaded quip about women's suffrage. Extending the franchise to women is, in my estimation, one of the great triumphs of the American classical liberal tradition. Like the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage was rooted in the rejection of a shameful tradition of paternalism that held that some classes of people are less than fully able to govern themselves. I cannot see how anyone who accepts basic liberal assumptions about freedom and equality can see the establishment of equal political rights as anything but an unequivocal good… unless he rejects the legitimacy of politics in principle. I think this is were Thiel was coming from.

But if politics is in-principle illegitimate, it was illegitimate before women got the vote, so why bring it up? By bringing it up as a reason why democratic progress is hopeless, Thiel does make it sound like he thinks the problem's not democratic politics per se, but democratic politics without good prospect of producing the right answer. But liberalism starts from the recognition that free and equal people don't agree about the right answer but need to find a way to live together anyway. The secessionist instinct does seem illiberal insofar as it's based in the frustration that reasonable pluralism fails to generate consensus on the right answer — even when the content of the right answer is a radical version of liberalism. And Thiel's comment seemed to imply that political recognition of the fundamental equality of persons is not only tangential to the right answer, but might even get in the way of arriving at it, which is just screwed up.

If establishing equal rights to political participation in fact created an impediment to the political success of libertarianish ideas, maybe there are some very good reasons for that. People who finally gained equal political rights through a long democratic struggle cannot have been unreasonable to see democratic politics as a morally and politically progressive force. An ideology that damns democratic politics as almost necessarily immoral might not look so good to them. And if libertarian-style politics seems especially unnatractive to members of formerly oppressed and disenfranchised groups, maybe that's because it is reasonable to suspect that a politics that focuses relentlessly on the inviolability of property rights in a system that once treated people as property, and for centuries denied much of the population the chance to accumulate any property, is a politics meant to protect those who reap the gains of a still-rigged and unjust system.

Libertarianism does have public relations problems, and it's not because most people are stupid or immoral. It's because libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that it's a uselessly abstract ahistorical ideology for socially retarded adolescent white guys. The sadly common libertarian-conservative penchant for “brave” counter-PC truthiness (e.g., “Women do love the welfare state!” “Blacks really do have lower IQs!”) certainly doesn't help.

Most libertarians don't want to move to man-made islands. Most don't even want to help take over New Hampshire. If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we've got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We've got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them. Otherwise, we should probably just accept that libertarianism is a niche creed for weird people and reconcile ourselves to impotent, self-righteous grousing. Or get serious about life on the sea. For my part, I'm going to continue to try to convince people that free markets and limited goverment are better than they might have thought.