Libertarianism and the Politics of Everything

It is a precept of Athenian philosophy in the Socratic tradition that the impetus to philosophy begins with wonder at the heavens, but the attempt to actually philosophize begins with what is near to hand–with what is ordinarily said. The presocratics are in error when they attempt to begin with and build up from a speculative ontological basis. Theorizing human life with the materials of cosmic speculation tends to produce disdain for the norms of ordinary conduct and leads us to ignore or forget what we already implicitly know about how to live together. Good philosophy begins with the question of how to live and then builds from there out to the encompassing cosmos. Our most urgent ordinary questions are political questions. What should the rules of our common social life be? What should the laws be? To answer those questions we need to know what a good human life is, and how the rules of a community can help people live well. But to know these things we’ve got to ask what sort of thing a human being is and what sort of thing a human community is. And that pushes us out toward questions about how humans fit within the larger natural order and toward questions about how communities must function in order for people to live well within them. Which calls in turn for a grasp of general principles about the forces that explain observed patterns, beneficial and pathological, in human organization. And on and on.

Perhaps my favorite insight of Leo Strauss is that when we do philosophy like the presocratics, and put metaphysics first, our resulting theory risks failing to account for politics, leaving us to muddle through with untutored common sense, or, in the worst case, leads us to over-abstractly theorize politics in a way that does terrible violence to significant truths of untutored political common sense, setting us up for tyrrany. I think this is true and that overly abstract and idealized political theory is not to be much trusted. Good philosophy just is political philosophy in the sense that the implicit wisdom of ordinary social life is where we begin, and consistency with that wisdom is a standard against which to judge the adequacy of further efforts to theorize the world. Strauss thinks philosophy is inherently political in a different sense as well. Humans are political animals, and philosophy as a human practice devoted to the rational evaluation of the regime and its laws is, if the philosopher is doing it right, threatening to those with a vested interest in the status quo. In certain very common illiberal circumstances, the philosopher has to play a certain kind of politics–has to philosophize politically–just to survive. Strauss is correct about this, too. But that’s not what I mean here when I say that good philosophy is political from the start. I mean that philosophy ought to begin not with an inquiry into the basic furniture of the cosmos, but with common sense about everyday human life, which is political.

When you assume this stance and take the rules that govern ordinary life as the starting point of philosophy, the sense in which everything is political becomes clearer. By political I mean contested, negotiated, and normatively binding. Coercion is a limiting case of rule enforcement and not the essence of the political, in this sense.

So, I made coffee this morning. The exact way this came about reflects a vast set of rules that are political in my broad sense, but also political in a libertarian’s narrower sense. The coordination of the production and distribution of my coffee and my coffee maker depended on a system of property rights that is, in fact, politically defined. And the interface between different national regimes of property rights that got my beans from Guatemala to Chattanooga was probably mediated by politically negotiated trade agreements. And my coffee machine is what it is and cost what it did in part due to politically-determined patent law. And the coffee was processed, and my machine functions, in a manner in part determined by politically-implemented health and safety regulations. And so on and so on. Politics in every drop.

Let me now suggest that libertarianism, in its purer forms, is partially a result of going at politics a bit too much metaphysics first, rather than the other way around. I think one consequence of this is that libertarians generally don’t like the idea that politics pervades every sip of coffee. Libertarians tend to see this sort of insight as evidence of a lamentable and unnecessary over-politicization of everything. (But I, Pencil is a glorious story of apolitical complex market coordination!) Libertarians do not, however, deny that law and regulation structure our relationships or everyday interaction with the world. They agree that it does, and think it’s a problem. They tend to see life within the ubiquitous life-structuring matrix of state-backed legislation as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations in much the same way that Marxists see private property as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations. It’s interesting to contrast radical libertarians and Marxists on this score. Radical libertarians think that if you get rid of politics, you end up with only private property and “natural” and/or “ideal” market relations. But these “natural” market relations, according to Marxists, are what is inherently distorting, oppressive, and political. It’s only when we get rid of bad, distorting market relations, by getting rid of the politics of private ownership of capital, that we can have “natural” and/or “ideal” political community.

Anyway, what would undo the distortion, according to libertarians? Interestingly, the only answer is politics. Libertarian think tanks advise emendations to current public policy. These changes can only be implemented through the political system. Even to recommend them is a fundamentally political act. Free Staters coordinate to take over the state politics of New Hampshire. The seasteaders and champions of startup cities are directly involved in the very complicated geopolitical realities of founding new city-states. Founding a new sovereign or semi-sovereign polis is, of course, politics par excellence.

In practical effect, libertarianism is a force or tendency within the existing political order that creates pressure not for the abolition of the state, but for different laws within current states, or new states with new laws. The main libertarian argument is that people have certain rights, and certain current laws violate those rights. So new laws replacing those bad laws ought to be passed, or newly instituted. Of course, we all understand that the law constrains and enables behavior, so we worry about the effects of changing the law. Libertarians speak to these worries. Libertarianism is a voice in the public square constantly making the claim that changing this or that law so that it will better accord with the libertarian notion of rights will not harm the public good, but will probably enhance it. (There are libertarians who skip rights altogether and argue for these changes simply on the grounds that they will have good consequences, but these people count as libertarians rather than ideologically neutral, pragmatic utilitarians because their policy recommendations so closely track those implied by libertarian theories of rights.) The argument over what rights people have isn’t just a philosophical matter, and libertarians don’t treat it as simply philosophical, either. They want the law to reflect it. Public policy follows opinion, and opinion is largely a matter of what people think is wrong and right. Making arguments about what the laws ought to be is the fundamental political, and philosophical, task.

Yet libertarians tend to affect a disdain for practical politics, and tend to see themselves as criticizing politics from a politically untainted place of ideal community beyond politics. But this is a mistake–a mistake that hobbles the effectiveness of the libertarian program, which is thoroughly and comprehensively political. Libertarians qua libertarians do nothing but politics, arguing for the active political revision of current law, or the founding of new polities with new laws, on the basis of a philosophical theory about what the laws should be. The widespread libertarian idea that actively participating in politics lacks dignity, or, worse, involves an intolerable complicity with injustice, has probably helped libertarianism maintain a certain uncompromised ideological purity, but has also made it strangely self-neutralizing as an effective political force.

When libertarians do stumble into some political power, they tend to get confused about what to do with it, because they’ve spent most of their intellectual lives hammering away at the status quo with their ideal theory, and basically no time whatsoever thinking about the implications of that theory for practical governance in a smashmouth pluralistic democracy. What shall we do first? Audit the fed?

What does libertarianism look like when it takes seriously the fact that it is one ideological faction among others acting politically to renogotiate the terms of the pervasive matrix of political rules within which we are always already enmeshed and from which there can be no escape? Does it become finally effective as a political force? Or does it become something else altogether?

  • ThaomasH

    I think they become just another kind of liberal with different Beysian priors about how bureaucracies can operate and parameter estimates several different kinds of effort/leisure trade offs. But to actually engage in politics they have to be willing to use data to update those priors.

  • Coffee tastes like politics? Yuck! No wonder I don’t drink the stuff!

    You spend your money on coffee… I do not spend my money on coffee. We spend our money differently because we have different preferences. Human diversity is the basis of consumer choice. Consumer choice is economics. Economics is the opposite of politics. Economics is the opportunity cost of politics.

    If coffee was in the realm of politics… then one of us would have to get screwed. Either my money would be spent on coffee… despite the fact that I can’t stand the stuff… or your money wouldn’t be spent on coffee… despite the fact that you love the stuff. Would you really want coffee to be in the realm of politics? No? Then why in the world would you want anything to be in the realm of politics?

    Politics only exists because people don’t understand economics. If people understood economics then they would clearly see the absolute absurdity of allowing a small group of elected officials to spend everybody’s taxes.

    The next time that you drink coffee… don’t think about politics. Think about how you’re pretty happy with your coffee despite the fact that I’m entirely free not to spend any of my money on coffee.

    To be clear… the free-rider problem is a real problem… so we need the public sector… but we really don’t need it to be a political realm. Libertarianism is the belief that we need to kick most public goods out of the public sector. Pragmatarianism is the belief that we need to kick politics out of the public sector.