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Libertarianism Beyond Nozick

By Matt Zwolinski.

Academic philosophers often write as though the moral case for markets begins and ends with Robert Nozick. And since Nozick’s arguments fail, they argue, so too does the moral defense of markets, at least in its “extreme” libertarian form.

But this singular focus on Nozick is puzzling. I know a lot of academic philosophers who identify themselves as free-market libertarians. But almost none of them identify themselves as Nozickians, nor do many of them embrace Nozick’s neo-Lockean natural rights approach to political philosophy. By and large the only group of philosophers who do embrace such an approach are the left-libertarians like Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner who, ironically, deploy it in the service of a politics that is largely opposed to the system of free markets and private property championed by Nozick.

Rather than continuing to fire volleys at an antagonist who ended his brief foray onto the field almost fifty years ago, contemporary critics of the market need to adjust their sights. The libertarian intellectual tradition did not spring into existence ex nihilo in the mid-1970s, nor did it grind to a halt once Thomas Nagel famously (if unfairly) criticized Nozick’s system as being “without foundations.” It is of course impossible to do justice to the rich diversity of contemporary and historical libertarian thought within the confines of a single blog post. Nevertheless, we can identify some common themes in this work, themes which taken together make a strong moral case for the free market, and that contemporary critics of markets must do a much better job addressing.

1) Not All Social Constructs Are Arbitrary – Critics of libertarianism often point out that free markets and private property are a kind of social convention. Contrary to what natural rights theorists seem to argue, their normative status is not written into the structure of the universe. But this criticism misrepresents what contemporary libertarians mean when they talk about “natural” rights. Libertarians recognize that their favored political and economic institutions are social constructs. But to note that an institution is a social construct is not the same as showing that it is arbitrary. As libertarians like John Hasnas have pointed out, institutions of private property and free exchange have evolved repeatedly throughout history as an effective means of resolving social conflict in a world of scarce resources and limited benevolence. Property rights give individuals and groups a kind of jurisdiction in which they can pursue their own goals and values without first seeking the approval of any political superior. Market prices emerge even when state authorities actively attempt to stamp them out because the information and incentives they convey play an essential role in social coordination and cooperation. What makes these institutions “natural” is not that they are Divinely mandated. Rather, it is that they, like human language, emerge spontaneously as the “result of human action but not the execution of any human design.” No philosopher or statesman invented them. They evolved, and survived, not because they fit some theoretical ideal but because by-and-large they worked to solve the actual problems that actual societies faced.

2) Governments Fail Too – Of course, it is not difficult to identify cases in which markets seem to fail. Real world markets don’t live up to the economist’s ideal of perfect competition, and even perfectly efficient markets would still be deficient from the perspective of ideal justice. Clever philosophers and economists can easily come up with models of alternative institutional structures that would do a better job. But models aren’t reality, whether we’re talking about markets or governments. And the fact that real world markets pale in comparison with idealized governments does nothing to make the case for handing more power and authority over to actual governments. Actual governments, like actual businesses, are run by human beings with imperfect knowledge, imperfect rationality, and sometimes impure motives. But unlike businesses, who make their mistakes on a decentralized scale with their own money, and who face the constant discipline of a system of profit and loss, government plays its game on a grand scale, and with other people’s resources. Rent-seeking and cronyism are thus not temporary problems that we have only because the wrong people, or the wrong party, hold office. They are deep, structural problems with politics – a kind of government failure that must at the very least be weighed carefully against the perceived problems of the market when thinking about how much power we really want the state to wield.

3) Coercion is Bad – Some libertarians think that morality imposes an absolute prohibition on interfering with the persons or property of others, no matter how minor the infringement, and no matter how great the benefits to be gained from it. I have argued elsewhere that this position is implausible. But even if it is, it does not follow that coercive interference with the persons or possessions of others is morally trivial. Common sense morality supports the belief that coercion is a serious prima facie wrong: one that can sometimes be justified, but only in special circumstances and by very weighty considerations. Why, then, should we be any less critical of the kinds of coercion that governments employ? What governments call “taxation,” most of us would call “theft” if it were done by private individuals – even if it were done to support a very good cause like providing for the common defense. Most people appreciate the FDA’s regulating the safety food and drugs on our behalf, but if a private person or firm attempted to impose its own conception of “safety” on the public by forcibly preventing those it deemed unsafe from supplying their services, we would howl. Of course, if handing over coercive power to a monopolistic governmental power turned out to be the only way to avoid social catastrophe, few of us would object. And this is certainly the explanation we’re given about why we have the regulations we do today. But how confident should we be that the various non-coercive alternatives to state policy have been given a fair chance? And how confident should we be that the coercion government currently employs is truly necessary for the interests of the public, and not the interests of the state itself or its cronies?

Libertarianism is not a comprehensive ethical philosophy. It does not tell us everything we need to know about how to be a good person, or a good neighbor. It does not claim that all actions that you should be free to do are equally virtuous, or even morally permissible. Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It is a theory about the proper size and scope of the state, and about the proper spheres of force and freedom in our lives. Accordingly, libertarianism as such has no answers for many of our most important moral questions. Rather, it holds that individuals should be left free, as much as possible, to answer those questions for themselves, in their own way. This is an uninspiring vision only if one’s idea of inspiration necessarily involves not only collective action in the pursuit of a common overarching goal, but compelled collective action. Libertarians do not deny the importance of community any more than they deny the importance of moral virtue. What they deny is the necessity or appropriateness of centralized state coercion in bringing about either.

The libertarian vision of a society is one of free and responsible individuals, cooperating on their own terms for purposes of mutual benefit. It is a vision that draws its support from a wide variety of moral and empirical beliefs with deep roots in the public political culture. And it is one that contemporary critics of the market would do well to take much more seriously.

Matt Zwolinski is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, a co-director of the USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy, and the founder of and frequent contributor to the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 10th, 2013.