Libertarianism and Its Discontents

Rand Paul got himself into trouble recently for appearing to give less than his full support to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The criticisms of Paul range from the tactical (“How stupid can a candidate be?”) to the ideological (“See?  All teabaggers are racists!”) to the serious and well-reasoned.  The point I wish to make in the shadow of this controversy is that Paul’s problem in this case is not his alone;  it is a fundamental problem with libertarianism.

What I mean by “libertarianism” is a political philosophy that posits individual freedom as a, or perhaps, the fundamental goal of politics.  In this “strong-form libertarianism,” the desirability of freedom is axiomatic;  it is an end in itself.  I contrast this view with what I would call “weak-form libertarianism” which views individual liberty as desirable because of the ends it tends to advance.  To a weak-form libertarian such as myself, freedom is a good thing because of the nature of free societies.  In those cases where free choice leads to immoral outcomes, however, I believe that limitations on the exercise of free choice can be defended.  Ethics may prescribe freedom as a general rule, but they may also proscribe freedom when it leads to unethical results.

The sordid history of race relations in the United States, particularly but not exclusively in the Jim Crow South, is the perfect illustration of my point.  As James McPherson points out in his masterly Battle Cry of Freedom, both sides in the U.S. Civil War fought for “freedom” as they perceived it.  One side fought, essentially, for freedom from federal rule and freedom of contract (of a singular sort), while the other fought for freedom from enslavement.  What that war and its subsequent constitutional amendments established, in my view, is that political rights ultimately belong to individuals, not to the States, so that Federal enforcement of civil rights is fully warranted.

Strong-form libertarianism should have no problem with federal prohibition of state laws that restrict voting rights and the like, so I do not think that strong-form libertarians are identical to “states’-rights” advocates.  But what is to be done in cases where individual choices lead to injustices such as pervasive racial segregation?  If we believe that such choices are invidious, why would we value the right to exercise those choices?  To put it starkly, why is the freedom to demean an entire class of people worth defending?

If any strong-form libertarians happen upon this post, I urge them to answer this question.  In the absence of any such answers, I will venture my own guess as to what their responses would probably be.   One possible answer is simply that freedom is itself the sole political value, so that it requires no defense in any instance.  I believe that there are people of good will who would offer this answer unhesitatingly;  in fact, I think that I have met such people, although I have not customarily found pleasure in their company.  The other answer I can think of is one that I can readily imagine my ardently libertarian friends giving.  They would argue that, despite the odious results from free choice in this particular case, freedom is so valuable that it must be defended in all cases.

This latter argument, however, does not truly take freedom as an objective, but as an instrument.  Repugnant outcomes in a particularly difficult case are defended in terms of the desirable outcomes that will more typically result from freedom.  This is, quite clearly, an instrumental defense of freedom that is really a form of un-self-aware “weak-form” libertarianism.

To argue, as I do, that freedom is a means rather than an end, does not make it less attractive as a guide to policy choices.  Indeed, I believe that freedom as a path that usually leads to justice is a more appealing notion than freedom as something that per se constitutes justice.  Weak-form libertarianism, which once was simply known as liberalism, seeks justice through liberty, and is therefore able to recognize and resolve those rare cases in which the exercise of freedom by some denies justice to others.

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