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The Paradox of The Paradox of Libertarianism

March 14th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Tyler Cowen’s Cato Unbound essay is generating some discussion. He argues that what successes libertarian ideas have had actually tend to promote more government over the long run:

Libertarian ideas also have improved the quality of government. Few American politicians advocate central planning or an economy built around collective bargaining. Marxism has retreated in intellectual disgrace.

Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.

I am not so worried about this paradox of libertarianism. Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.

I have two contradictory—maybe even paradoxical!—thoughts. The first is that I’m not sure this is really a case of losses in “negative liberty” being offset by gains in (more important) “positive liberty” because it’s not obvious how cleanly the two concepts can actually be separated. Take a paradigm violation of negative liberty: Physical restraint. Say someone attaches a half-ounce weight to my ankle, or arranges for a mild gust of wind to oppose my efforts to walk down the street. If these count as infringements of negative liberty at all, they are at any rate negligible ones scarcely worth bothering about. But then, that depends on my having a more or less normal human body as opposed to, say, a housefly’s. And if we were all built like Superman, being shot or threatened with a handgun would not count as any sort of very serious coercion. In other words, to gauge even the extent of negative liberty, you need to take some account of people’s positive capacities.

Now suppose government grows apace as society becomes vastly more wealthy. Clearly, government (or tax bites) might well grow in absolute dollar terms while shrinking in real terms, and we wouldn’t describe that as “growing government” or, more to the point, as increasing restriction of negative liberty counterbalanced by yet greater positive liberty. Rather, I think, we should say that in context the same, or even more intrusive, state actions or rules constitute lesser infringements of negative liberty. But if that’s the case, then we might adopt the same framing even when government grows in absolute terms. I’m not sure how you decide whether taking 10 percent of a $10,000 income is more or less coercive than taking 40 percent of a $10 billion income, but it’s not clear to me that the concept of negative liberty requires us to say “the latter” unless we’re formalistic to the point of absurdity.

The other, probably incompatible thought (I am vast; I contain multitudes) is that positive and negative liberty are actually such different animals that it’s somewhat unfortunate that we’re apt to use the same term do describe both (even with qualifiers), and that we ought to be careful about conflating what is “more important” in the sense of making our lives go well with what’s required by justice. Essentially none of us, in our own lives, give negative liberty the kind of lexical priority it has on many libertarian theories. Past some basic threshold of resources, you could probably, if you wanted, move to some isolated and uninhabited island and live there utterly free of government coercion. Nobody does this. It doesn’t follow that positive liberty is the “more important” good in the sense of being the proper subject of political justice. Most of us would rather be slapped in the face than lose our business (or our spouse) to a competitor, but it doesn’t follow that a theory of rights has to regard the latter as the more serious (or any kind of) infringement. There are categories of acts that are wrong because they involve treating people in certain ways that fail to respect their dignity, and there are categories of opportunities that are good because they enable people to translate the space created by negative liberty into the achievement of personal goals. Talking about which is “more important” as though they were on the same value scale just seems like a category error: The right is a structure within which the good is pursued, not another sort of good.

Tags: Language and Literature



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 micahd // Mar 20, 2007 at 9:23 am

    I didn’t read Tyler’s essay but he certainly referenced that fact that William Niskanen has made this point for many years now, right?