Understanding Political Libertarianism
By Will Wilkinson
In his meandering July 20th essay, Edward Feser failed totally to demonstrate the "The Trouble with Libertarianism." It's hard to pin down the argument in Feser's convoluted dissertation. I count at least four loosely confederated claims:

(1)     'Libertarianism' does not designate a single, coherent philosophical position. There are only "libertarianisms," i.e., various mutually inconsistent brands of so-called libertarianism.


(2)     Libertarianisms can be lumped into two main categories:

a.       Traditionalist, natural rights classical liberalism with a "thick" conception of human nature and human natural ends. (I'll call this "thick libertarianism.")

b.      "Economistic" consequentialist libertarianism, with a "thin," reductionist conception of human nature and rational choice. I'll call this ("thin libertarianism.")


(3)     Both thick and thin libertarianism pretend to be neutral between various moral worldviews, but aren't really. In the end, each marginalizes someone.


(4)     Thick libertarians have more in common with natural law conservatives than they do with thin libertarians, and ought to be wary of allying themselves with laissez allez economists.


It would be tedious to address each of these claims at length. Instead, I'm going to present what I take to be the most persuasive form libertarianism, which I'll call "political libertarianism." Now, political libertarianism just is libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political doctrine of liberal social order, not a metaphysical doctrine about human nature and the human good. Once you've got a grip on the idea of libertarianism as a distinctively political doctrine, it's easy enough to see that Feser's claim (1) is false, (2) and (4) are irrelevant, and (3) betrays rather stunning incomprehension of the idea of liberal (and libertarian) neutrality.


Political Libertarianism


Although Feser gestures toward something akin to understanding, the substance of his essay verifies his failure to grasp the crucial difference between a comprehensive moral conception -- a soup to nuts picture of human nature, morality, and the good society -- and a merely political conception of the conditions for liberal social order -- a minimal set of principles of association committed to no single worldview, but which may be supported by many different worldviews.


The distinction between comprehensive and political conceptions, and the general framework within which I frame my argument against Feser, is owed to the great 20th century liberal political philosopher John Rawls.


In Rawls's celebrated book, A Theory of Justice, his argument required the assumption that everyone in society shares a certain set of ideas about what it is to be a moral person.[1] In his second book, Political Liberalism, Rawls saw that he had made a mistake.[2] Rawls recognized that individual differences in history, tradition, education, family, and experience would inevitably lead reasonable people to very different conclusions about human nature, morality, and the purpose of life. In a free society, in which no one is forced to believe anything in particular, there is simply no way that everyone is going to agree. Christians, Objectivists, Marxists, and Muslims, or some similarly motley array of views, will always be with us. Any political theory that requires all these radically different sorts of people to somehow come to agreement on philosophical fundamentals has got to be wrong. The governing principles of a free, pluralistic, cosmopolitan society therefore must not rely on the philosophical viewpoint of any particular worldview, but must make sense from a wide variety of worldviews. A political conception of social order stands free of any single comprehensive perspective.


Although Rawls is by no means a libertarian, libertarians are a species of liberal, and many have found their understanding of libertarianism illuminated by Rawls's account of the political nature of liberalism. Just last week the distinguished libertarian legal and political theorist, Randy Barnett, made available online a paper in which he interprets libertarianism as political in Rawls's sense. Barnett writes:


"Libertarians need not choose between moral rights and consequences because theirs is a political, not a moral, philosophy; one that can be shown to be compatible with various moral theories, which as we shall see is one source of its appeal."[3]


Now, Feser seems to be disoriented by the fact that there is a wide array of comprehensive or partially comprehensive philosophical doctrines -- natural rights theory, utilitarianism, contractarianism, and so on -- that have been deployed in support of libertarian conclusions, but in quite different ways, and with different and conflicting implications. This leads him to conclude that, "there is no such thing as 'libertarianism' in the first place: it would be more accurate to speak in the plural of 'libertarianisms' . . ."


However, libertarianism, construed as a practical political theory, does not require a "deep" metaphysical justificatory theory. We needn't wait until the last libertarian utilitarian or natural rights theorist dies in the last ditch in order to say what libertarianism really is. The content of political libertarianism is to be found in the overlap between these different comprehensive libertarianisms. Something like: a relatively small state governed by a rule of law that protects rights to personal autonomy, contract, and private property from within the context of a robust and free market economy.


One of the points of liberalism, and hence libertarianism, is to provide for a social order within which a plurality of different philosophies and worldviews may coexist and flourish, and within which debates over fundamentals may peacefully proceed. A liberal polity is one in which rights theorists and utilitarians, Mormons and wiccans, Aggies and Longhorns can lie down together in a peaceable kingdom of ends. The political libertarian argues that the sparse libertarian framework can be affirmed from a multiplicity of different points of view, because it is sparse, and because its principles are not bogged down with assumptions unique to any one particular point of view. It is a cosmopolitan, pluralistic theory designed for a cosmopolitan, pluralistic world.


Feser's argument, insofar as there is one, rests on confusing libertarianism for its various competing comprehensive justificatory strategies. Additionally, Feser argues that libertarianism is not genuinely neutral between competing conceptions of morality. Feser is wrong on this count because he misunderstands the political character of libertarianism, but also because he mangles the idea of liberal neutrality.


Liberal Order and Liberal Neutrality


Liberalism in general may be understood as the answer to a question: What is the best way to produce and maintain a stable social order? Liberalism submits that the best kind of social order is one in which each individual is given the widest berth in the pursuit of her personal aims and the realization of her basic human capacities, limited only by the equal freedom of others. A liberal order is neither imposed from the top by coercive authority nor settled in the middle by a common worldview prescribing the pursuit of a uniform aim. A liberal social order is one that wells up from the coordinated actions of a multitude of individual persons acting to advance their separate and individual ends. A liberal society is, in Rawls's words, "a cooperative venture for mutual advantage." A stable liberal order is sustained by our willing compliance to fair principles of association that we each take to be instrumental to (and perhaps partly constitutive of) the satisfaction of our personal ends.


Liberal order is superior to the alternatives because, among other things, it takes seriously that free people will not always agree, and makes as much room as possible for our differences. It turns out that liberal order, in which people are able to live by their own lights, is especially robust -- able to smooth out local disturbances and bounce back from external shocks -- because people who benefit from society develop an allegiance to it and are motivated to mend tears in the web of cooperation. Liberal order is not brittle, but it is by no means unbreakable. Sustained liberal order does require certain general patterns of individual initiative and constraint based in shared beliefs, desires, or habit. Some beliefs, desires and habits, if consistently indulged, cut against the patterns of behavior upon which order emerges.


Because we have the best chance to peacefully realize our goals alongside others within a liberal order, we each have reasons, internal to our own aims, to help sustain it. Beliefs, preferences, and habits contrary to liberal order are unreasonable just in the sense that they are inconsistent with our reasons to sustain a social order that tends to benefit everyone, usually including the people with contrary commitments. These commitments therefore fall outside the umbrella of protection offered by liberal neutrality and toleration. If we say that liberalism cannot tolerate its own demise, what we mean is that individuals in pursuit of their happiness cannot tolerate the breakdown of the conditions under which that pursuit is most likely to succeed.


Feser quotes the great Friedrich Hayek in this regard:


"It is not by conceding 'a right to equal concern and respect' to those who break the code that civilization is maintained. Nor can we, for the purpose of maintaining our society, accept all moral beliefs which are held with equal conviction as morally legitimate, and recognize a right to blood feud or infanticide or even theft, or any other moral beliefs contrary to those on which the working of our society rests? For the science of anthropology all cultures or morals may be equally good, but we maintain our society by treating others as less so."[4]


Feser mistakenly reads Hayek as here advancing a "conservative and moralistic" point. The point is in fact liberal and political. Hayek is simply saying that liberal social order has some objective conditions, and that if certain forms of behavior go unchecked, then we won't have order at all, or at least not a liberal one. He is clearly not making a claim about the deep moral status of blood feuds, infanticide, or theft. He is saying that a society that permits them -- that treats them as valid forms of behavior -- is inconsistent with the principles of cooperation that define a stable liberal order.


Feser is trying to use Hayek to show that libertarians can't just tolerate anything, and thus aren't authentically neutral among competing conceptions of the good. He does this by trying to erect a dilemma for libertarians. First, Feser divides libertarian comprehensive views into two camps: "conservative and moralistic" and reductively "economistic," which I'll call the "thick" and "thin" views of comprehensive libertarianism. The dilemma goes like this: If you are a libertarian, then your philosophy is either thick or thin. If it is thick, then a society framed according to your principles will marginalize those who "flout bourgeois standards." If it is thin, then a society framed according to your principles will marginalize conservatives. So every libertarian society would marginalize someone. But a society that marginalizes anyone isn't genuinely neutral. Feser writes:


"For the versions of libertarianism described in the last section [the thin versions] do not treat conservative views as truly moral views at all; they treat them instead as mere prejudices: at best matters of taste, like one's preference for this or that flavor of ice cream, and at worst rank superstitions that pose a constant danger of leading those holding them to try to restrict the freedoms of those practicing non-traditional lifestyles. Libertarians of the contractarian, utilitarian, or "economistic" bent must therefore treat the conservative the way the egalitarian liberal treats the racist, i.e. as someone who can be permitted to hold and practice his views, but only provided he and his views are widely regarded as of the crackpot variety. Just as the Lockean, Smithian, Hayekian, and Aristotelian versions of libertarianism entail a social marginalization of those who flout bourgeois moral standards, so too do these unconservative versions of libertarianism entail a social marginalization of those who defend bourgeois moral standards. Neither kind of libertarianism is truly neutral between moral worldviews.


". . .someone is inevitably going to get pushed into the cultural catacombs. In no case is a 'libertarian' society going to be genuinely neutral between all the points of view represented within it."


Now, the libertarian can slip between the horns of the dilemma by rejecting the premise that libertarianism, qua political theory, is committed to either a thick, rights-based, or thin, consequentialist, comprehensive moral theory. Both thick and thin comprehensive libertarians have sufficient reason to endorse political libertarianism, which makes no claims about ultimate justification.


The real issue, however, is whether political libertarianism is neutral in the relevant sort of way between competing conceptions of morality. Must a political libertarian "treat the conservative the way the egalitarian liberal treats the racist, i.e. as someone who can be permitted to hold and practice his views, but only provided he and his views are widely regarded as of the crackpot variety?" Well, no. But hold on a second.


Feser's particular example here, about racists, highlights his failure to appreciate the relation between liberal order and liberal neutrality. The liberal's reason to impugn the views of the racist is not that they are "crackpot," which is trivial. Rather, the overt, practicing racist helps to undermine the conditions of equality (a kind of neutrality) under which each member of society can best pursue her goals. If racists are allowed to succeed in oppressing a minority, then that minority will find that it has little reason to help sustain a social order that puts them at a systematic disadvantage. They may then become justly motivated to undermine or destabilize the order until the conditions for their equal freedom and opportunity are restored. Society is, once again, a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, and we put our own long-term interests in peril if we allow the erosion of the common grounds for cooperation. We are not abdicating liberal neutrality when we excoriate racists. Far from it; we are preserving the conditions of neutrality that allow very different kinds of people to flourish as parts of an extended cooperative community.


This points to the deeper objection to Feser's dilemma. "Social marginalization" per se is not inconsistent with liberal neutrality. His dilemma relies on a straw man conception of neutrality that no one holds. Neutrality has a function: to help facilitate the conditions for mutually beneficial cooperation in a cosmopolitan, pluralistic society. The function is not to tolerate anything whatsoever, and no one has ever argued that it is. The point of liberal neutrality is to preserve liberal (bottom-up, cooperative) order. If people who have views inconsistent with a cosmopolitan liberal society feel marginalized, then, to the extent that this prevents these views from being enacted within society, that's a very good thing. If you refuse to respect the conditions of mutually beneficial cooperation (neutrality and toleration being among them) or seek to undermine them, then the "cultural catacombs" are precisely where you belong. At the very least you deserve a "time out."


One task of the liberal intellectual is to understand and help to enforce the conditions of peaceful social cooperation. The task of enforcement includes criticism of those who threaten the conditions of cooperation. But the greater, and more difficult part, is helping people to understand they generally will not become better off relative to their own commitments by attempting to impose elements of their comprehensive moral views on others. The attempt will only ignite a flame that will eventually consume them too.


Feser is worried that conservative moral ideas might be treated as mere predilections. He should stop worrying. There is nothing about political libertarianism to keep us from recognizing that people make all kinds of deep and meaningful spiritual, intellectual and moral commitments, and that people regard these commitments as central to their lives. It is precisely because the political libertarian understands the centrality and profundity of these commitments, together with the fact that different people have profoundly different commitments, that political libertarians propose a minimalist social framework that leans as lightly as possible on any one set of commitments and that can be affirmed from the widest range of perspectives.


The alternative to this kind of broad accommodation of spiritual, moral, and intellectual diversity is a destabilizing competition for the levers of political power where people with conflicting commitments attempt to coercively impose their views upon those who have no reason to accept them. The disruptive instability created by this kind of clamor is precisely what political libertarianism, and the idea of liberal neutrality, is designed to prevent. For sure, I get a kick from imagining a community where everyone else abides by my favorite principles. It's sort of like thinking about what you'd do with a million dollars. But the fantasy of spiritual, moral, or intellectual hegemony is pretty much definitive of utopianism. The mark of political maturity is waking up to the irremediable complexity and diversity of our social world. Feser appears not to have awakened.


The Public Debate and the Conditions for Liberal Order


Now, Feser does briefly consider Rawlsian political liberalism, but he botches the libertarian answer to Rawls.


According to Rawls, a "reasonable" comprehensive conception is, roughly speaking, one that is compatible with liberal social order. Feser writes:


"Libertarians have objected that the details of Rawls's theory so incorporate his social and economic egalitarianism into what he counts as 'reasonable' that his claim to neutrality between actually existing worldviews is disingenuous; for Rawlsians are ultimately prepared to apply that honorific only to those comprehensive doctrines compatible with an extensive regime of anti-discrimination laws, forced income redistribution, and whatever other consequences are taken to follow from Rawls's famous 'difference principle' (which holds that no inequalities can be permitted in a just society unless they benefit its least well-off members). The 'comprehensive doctrines' of moral traditionalists and individualist free spirits alike, doctrines having millions of adherents, end up being effectively written off as 'unreasonable' from the egalitarian liberal point of view."


Now, Feser may well be right that Rawls is hasty and unfair in his rulings about which comprehensive conceptions are and are not reasonable. However, it's more than a bit shortsighted to reject the entire idea of a reasonable comprehensive conception, and the extremely powerful intellectual framework from which that notion emerges, just because one finds oneself on the wrong side of Rawls's judgment.


As I asserted above, and as Feser's Hayek passage supports, there are objective conditions for the emergence and stability of a distinctively liberal social order. The proper argument between the libertarian, the welfare liberal, and the classical liberal conservative is an argument over these conditions.


The political libertarian believes that liberal social order is best preserved by a minimalist set of principles of association under which people have the greatest leeway to pursue their projects, accumulate wealth, and to voluntarily rectify perceived injustices according to the dictates of their personal moral conceptions. The welfare liberal may argue that a system that fails to coercively redistribute wealth to the poor is one in which the poor do not benefit from the system sufficiently to regard it as being to their benefit, and in which the rich fail to understand the contribution of the poor to the order in which their wealth is possible. Such a system is unstable. The classical liberal conservative may argue that liberal social order does not emerge only from the cooperative interactions of isolated individuals, but from many intermediate levels of association, the most important being the family. Social principles that undermine the family threaten the integrity of a social order that, at bottom, depends upon the family.


Say what you will about each of these arguments. But notice that each of them appeals to something that just about everyone has a reason to promote and preserve: a peaceful, stable, liberal social order. And each argument, in principle, may be supported or undermined by evidence from psychology and the social sciences -- evidence not grounded in special, controversial, philosophical assumptions. This is the kind of public discourse to which we should aspire.


What we get from Feser, instead, is an argument to the effect that no political philosophy can be neutral, and that every political philosophy, libertarianism included, is going to end up imposing its comprehensive moral views on somebody. I suppose the gist of the argument is that we ought not resent Feser when he tries to impose his comprehensive moral views on the unwilling, because, after all, somebody's got to.


But he's wrong. Nobody's got to. There's an idea of liberal order worth defending, and thus an idea of liberal neutrality worth fighting for -- an idea that's good for all of us, especially in our kind of pluralistic society. Political libertarianism embodies the ideals of liberal order and liberal neutrality in a form that even Ed Feser has reason to affirm, whether he sees it or not. So if some of us pile on Feser for trying to foist his enthusiasm for Roman Catholicism or Aristotelian metaphysics or whatever on the rest of us, I'm sure he'll understand. We're looking after you, Ed, because, you know, we're all in it together.


Will Wilkinson is a program director for the Institute for Humane Studies and a writer living in Washington, D. C. He maintains a weblog at http://willwilkinson.net/flybottle.




[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[2] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)

[3] Randy E. Barnett, "The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism," Varieties of Conservatism in America, Peter Berkowitz, ed., Hoover Press, 2004 http://ssrn.com/abstract=565202

[4] F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3: The Political Order of a Free People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 172.


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