My Own Pie

Libertarian Thoughts from Renaissance Guy

Talking Past Each Other

with 5 comments

     In conversations with non-libertarians and anti-libertarians, I have noticed that we sometimes have trouble communicating because we start from different premises. 

     The most important premise that seems to trip us up is the idea that freedom and control are dichotomous.  A person cannot be somewhat pregnant or somewhat dead, and to me and many libertarians, a person cannot be somewhat free.  Imposing external control on somebody takes away from that person’s freedom and makes him or her no longer free.

     Non-libertarians start from the premise that being free is not an either-or proposition and that having some external control imposed on you does not mean that you are no longer free.  It only means that you are a little less free, and that it sometimes for your own good (or the good of others) to be less free.

     Thus, non-libertarians can say that the United States is operating under a capitalist economic system, even though we clearly are not.  Some of them will call our system a “mixed” economy.  To libertarians there can be no such thing.  Either there is a free market or a regulated one. 

     Once you have farm subsidies, bailouts of private companies,  hiring and firing regulations, minimum wage, required benefits, tax incentives, tax disincentives, antitrust laws, and a host of other governmental intrusions on business, it’s hardly free.  Some people are getting unfair advantages and other people are getting unfair disadvantages, and the economy is stifled.

     I think it is important that both sides understand what the other side is saying.  Frankly, I believe that libertarians have logic on our side.  If freedom means the ability to speak or act without externally imposed restraints, then any restraint obviously destroys freedom.  That is my definition of freedom.

     Sometimes I think that non-libertarians understand what we mean when we say “free market” or “capitalism” but pretend not to.  It is in their best interests, politically speaking, to do so, because if the “free market” is the cause of our woes, then more regulation must be the solution.  However, if we libertarians are right, and we do not have a free market in America, then the problem is regulation, and the cure is more freedom.

     I hope that we can at least understand each other and recognize how we view things from such different perspectives, based on a completely different premise.


Written by ambrosianideas

October 21, 2009 at 10:41 am

Posted in Libertarianism

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. Absolute freedom is clearly impossible. Conditions around us, whether governmental, natural, social, or economic always limit our freedom. I’ve always found it striking that both capitalist libertarians and traditional Marxists envision the same ending point: total liberty and choice without constraint or repression. Each sees the path in that direction differently. Libertarians see the state as the main obstacle to freedom, with markets and business an expression of free choice. Marxists see big money and the structural power that entails as the main force of exploitation and limiting of freedom, and sees the state as a means to limit the scope of that power.

    I think they are both right. Moreover, we are always free in the sense we are free to act within the circumstances we find ourselves. External actors are always putting constraints on us. The question becomes which constraints are legitimate, which are not, and why? That’s where libertarians, pragmatists (like myself), social democrats, and Marxists differ. What a pragmatist most strenuously objects to from both Marxists and Libertarians is the ideological formula used to define freedom in a particular way, and discredit injustices by either positing them as necessary along the way, or the result of the fact that their pure system is not yet in place (e.g., ‘the market isn’t really free so that’s why these sweat shops exist.’) That, to me, seems to try to create an artificial certitude to a particular take on reality that cannot be defended when real world conditions are taken into account. Too much theory. But, of course, as a pragmatist, I’m predisposed to think that!

    Scott Erb

    October 21, 2009 at 1:07 pm

  2. RG, I also tend toward libertarian views. But I disagree that being free is an either-or proposition. If you want to define freedom as having no constraints, fine. But as Scott Erb points out, there are no truly free societies in that sense. And I think you would have to recognize degrees of being un-free in the societies that do exist. Certainly in America we are less un-free than people in Communist countries, are we not? If you prefer to say that we are less unfree rather than more free, fine, but it seems to me it’s saying the same thing in different words.


    October 21, 2009 at 1:39 pm

  3. Scott, your first two sentences show once again that we are talking past each other. Freedom does not mean no limitations; it means no aggression (at least no permitted or sanctioned aggression) against a person. Absolute freedom is possible, if freedom means no infringement of a person’s natural rights.

    In a sense, there are no such things as “markets” in the sense in which you mean the term in your comment. There are only people. People own and trade things. That is why libertarians see free markets as a manifestation of freedom, because free makets really mean free people.

    When you write about libertarians and Marxists, you continue to make the very mistake I wrote about in the previous paragraph. Marxists claim to be for “the people” and against “private owwnership,” but private ownership is one of the fundamental rights of “the people.” When you write about Marxists wanting to limit the power and scope of business, that is precisely the destruction of freedom that I oppose.

    You prove my point again when you downplay the claim that no free market exists. It simply doesn’t. Unless you can convince me that tax incentives and disincentives, hiring and firing regulations, mandatory benefits, etc., etc., are somehow part of a free market, I will maintain that there is no such thing in existence.

    Maybe you are right in thinking that companies in America would turn into abusive sweatshops in a free market system. I doubt it. But we’ll never know until we give it a try.

    That’s all I suggest. We have tried collectivism and statism in various forms. Where and when has laissez- faire capitalism been tried?

    You might claim that libertarianism is just a theory, but in that case your pessimissim toward it is no more justified than my optimism toward it. Your certitude is no more reasonable than my certitude. Let’s just give it a try.


    October 21, 2009 at 2:10 pm

  4. If I were to give you the pieces that make up a watch, all you have are the physical pieces of “watch stuff” there. If I put them in a form to have a functioning watch, then you have the pieces acting in particular ways and achieving a result (a time keeping device) because of their organization or structure. So it is with “people.” You have more than just people, you have people in relationships forming social structures that both empower and constrain. Those structures determine freedom, with or without direct physical aggression. For instance: a man is born in extreme wealth, can travel the world, and buy whatever he wants. Another is born in extreme poverty. Clearly the first is free to do more than the second, regardless of official sanctions or aggression levels. If the structure of the relationship causes that state of affairs, then there is ‘structural aggression’ created simply by how society is organized, limiting freedom. That organization can be constantly re-produced, albeit imperfectly (a wealthy person can lose everything, a poor person can get rich — but those aren’t the norm).

    I don’t think it’s possible to “try” laissez-faire capitalism as you would define. Economic and political systems are built on cultural foundations. Laissez-faire capitalism will work or not work, or even be possible, if the cultural foundation is conducive to it. Collectivism fits many Asian cultures far better than individualism, so different systems will work better there.

    However, we did have much weaker governments during the industrial revolution, with far fewer regulations, and workers were paid just enough to survive, children were forced to work, and conditions were horrific. That lead to the rise of socialism as a counter-ideology, and political reforms to limit the power of factory owners. I don’t have certitude — I make my judgments on policy based on how I understand the facts, theories and different perspectives of an issue. Given the importance I place (for reasons I won’t go into now) on culture, I don’t think you can just ‘try out’ a new system. In fact, I think culture goes a long way to shape the kind of system one gets, and the realm of possibilities.

    Scott Erb

    October 21, 2009 at 7:34 pm

  5. One more angle you might want to consider: before modern capitalism societies (markets, etc.) were regulated by tradition and custom. The rise of capitalism came from the rise of the modern state, and particularly the need to make war (as Charles Tilly said, “War made the state and the state made war.”) To do this monarchs and nobility had to promote and give rights and liberties to merchants, who in turn used these to create what we now know of as modern capitalism. Thus capitalism and the state are “partners in crime” so to speak, each needing each other in order to move beyond traditional society. The idea of a separation of politics and economics, or of the possibility of laissez-faire capitalism seems to me to be a kind of fantasy. It’s not just that I think it would necessarily turn out negative, I don’t think it is even possible.

    Scott Erb

    October 22, 2009 at 1:23 am

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