Tuesday, June 07, 2005

My kind of libertarian


I've always called myself a libertarian, because I think that the principle of liberty is the most important principle by which to determine issues of fairness and justice. Recently, I've been challenged on this, with someone claiming that other people call themselves libertarians but believe different things.

So, what's liberty anyway? For me, liberty means freedom of choice in the sense of not being restricted by some political entity. It means being allowed to do whatever the hell I want to do without other people telling me I can't. Clearly, we should have some limits on liberty, because some people will want to do things which run counter to the common good - they will exploit others, kill people, and otherwise be a total downer on society. I don't believe that one person's rights outweight another's, but I do believe that the most basic principle by which people can argue for better treatment is liberty.

People existing in such a society are permitted by law to act outside of social norms so long as those actions do not directly impinge upon the liberty of another. The law exists not to enforce social norms, but to preserve the liberty of a country's citizens. This allows the existence of a morally diverse citizenship, as well as the satisfaction of a wide range of desires.

So, what *else* does liberty mean other than this? As far as I can tell, the broad outline I have put has been used by some as a defense for actions which, in fact, do impinge upon the liberty of others. They claim that the principle of liberty is *more important* than traditional principles of justice - for example the right to pollute your environment. A prime example of a contentious claim might be the right of city-dwellers to drive large 4WD vehicles. They are proven to be detrimental on balance (more damaging to crash victims than the safety benefits they confer to their occupants) to society, yet the drivers of such vehicle claim that the right to consumer choice trumps the rights of society to personal safety. To me, this is libertarianism gone made - a corruption of the idea of balancing the conflicting needs of society according to principles of choice.

For example, the right to personal safety is itself capable of being derived from my ideals of liberty. Being killed or harmed because of the actions of another is clearly an example of an aggressor taking away some of your choice. Certainly, a dog-eat-dog society where people have to compete for personal safety will not give people as much personal freedom as one in which personal safety is by and large protected.



Blogger Richard said...

Do you have any method for quantifying and weighing conflicting liberties? Because if not, the notion of 'maximizing' them is incoherent.

Also, you say: "For me, liberty means freedom of choice in the sense of not being restricted by some political entity."

But that neglects the sorts of problems I raise here, not to mention all the ways that political entities can protect and even increase our freedoms. And all the limitations to our freedoms that can be imposed by non-political means. (i.e. all the stuff we discussed a while back.)

It's an interesting topic though.

6/07/2005 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

A method for quantification ... no. But I do believe that such a thing would be, broadly, possible. I'll put my thinking cap on and try to propose some actual methods.

I would like, if possible, to retain the concept of land ownership. I think than owning land and being able to deny others access is important to meet the needs of individuals for satisfying their desire to private space. Ultimately private property is a recognition that society's desire for private space is best met through a system of ownership of space.

I think land ownership would fall out of quantifying the conflicting liberties at stake. In fact, we already have this in terms of limitations on what you can do with private land, especially in terms of public safety.

As for all the stuff we discussed a while back, I think we could agree to draw a line between practically-solvable unfreedoms, and practically-intractable unfreedoms for the purposes of quantifying the appropriate political response to a given situation...

Food for thought. Thanks for the comments.

6/07/2005 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Many forms of non-state coercion are practically soluble. Consider all the unfreedoms that arise from poverty. If we redistribute wealth, that might give poor people a lot more options.

Or, even if we stick to mere 'negative' liberty, there is the public access stuff mentioned in my linked recent post. Landowners (backed by the law) restrict me from walking across their land. Why should your desire for "private space" be allowed to restrict my freedom? I thought we were taking liberty to be the fundamental value? If you're going to allow other needs to trump it, then surely the starving man's desire for food will outweigh your desire for "private space".

Needless to say, these are not the sorts of conclusion that traditional libertarians are willing to embrace. I'll be posting more about it in the next few days, I think.

6/08/2005 01:44:00 PM  

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