For a former libertarian such as myself Rand Paul’s attack
on Civil Rights legislation is to be expected, except perhaps for its political
idiocy. For that latter quality I
am grateful because it weakens his candidacy. But there are interesting issues floating around the
kerfluffle Paul’s comments to Rachel Maddow raised.
More than almost any other political position, libertarians
take pride in the rational derivation of their political views from “first
principles” of human rights or some other ethical position. The best libertarians are highly
ethical people and hold views like Paul’s with absolutely no personal racism.
They are our allies on issues of religious freedom. Nevertheless, their position (which I used to hold, years ago)
is radically incoherent. And why
it is incoherent is particularly important for us Pagans to consider. But for those of you who are interested
in how this applies to Pagans but uninterested in political theory, scroll down
to Relationships Are Primary at the
Nevertheless it explains why not
only am I no longer a libertarian as I was in my youth, but why no libertarian could be a hard-core libertarian if they are intellectually rigorous. Coming from a Pagan perspective, where
the world has value beyond what we assign to it makes this critique more persuasive, but it applies to secular libertarian individualists as well.
Libertarians base their criticisms
of anti-discrimination laws on property rights. Assuming just property rights, they argue, any voluntary
transaction between consenting adults is OK, and any coerced act impinges on their freedom. The critical issues are
that the property be justly held and the transactions be voluntary. It all sounds very noble and
principled, and noble and principled people believe this – as well as some who are neither.
But there is a gorilla in the
closet, one that reduces the argument about the injustice of civil rights
regulations on private businesses, or equivalent measures to so much hokum.
The problem is where the argument starts- it assumes “just” property rights without ever figuring out very seriously why
one set of rights is just and another is not. A key assumption is that property comes in tight little packets with
easily discernable boundaries we can either choose to respect or to aggress against. And this assumption is simply wrong. I will give two examples that, when thought about, reduce rigorous libertarianism to gibberish.
Letting Some Light Shine on the
You and I are next door
neighbors. I like loud stereos and
play my music at all hours. You
like to keep your back yard brightly lit by floodlights all night long because
you have a paranoid fear of prowlers and burglars. (I pick the examples, so I
am the less neurotic of the two of us in them.) I like to watch the stars in the night sky and you are a
light sleeper and open the windows on hot nights.
Each of us is a problem for the
other. Each of us refuses
reasonable compromises, saying our property is ours to do with as we will. I have a “right” to watch stars from my back yard and to play my music. You retort you have a right to illuminate your backyard and get a good night’s sleep.
Clearly each of us is in the wrong
because, in libertarian terms, we aggress across another’s boundaries, I with
my loud music. You with your bright lights. But in the day time far more light pours into my yard, and
if you had your floodlights on, no noticeable harm would be done. During the day, when the environment is
far noisier, my music is lost in the din.
This leads to certain important questions anti-government libertarian
theory has no way of answering in such a way as to morally commit the loser to
following the principle arrived at.
1. How much light constitutes too
much? At what hour, if any, does
2. How much sound constitutes too
much? At what hour, if any, does
The way we do it in a democratic
community is have people elected by fair rules ultimately be responsible for
setting noise and light ordinances.
As a rule they do this based on a sensitivity to community standards as
to what constitutes appropriate behavior.
That way losers will usually feel the procedure was fair even if they
did not like this particular outcome.
It is an attitude that helps preserve civilization. What makes it fair? At least at some
point everyone had equal input on the matter of either deciding the law or
deciding who will decide the law.
Clearing the Air
The next example is quite real,
and the principle it spotlights is not all that unusual. Missoula, Montana
sits in between mountains where, once the population grew big enough, the air
became increasingly dangerous from trapped wood smoke hanging over the city in
the winter. Originally there were
too few people for this to matter, and everyone had wood burning stoves. (Wood
is plentiful and cheap.) As
Missoula’s population grew people with breathing difficulties increasingly had trouble, and some might die prematurely from the pollution. Burning wood, a use of property once harmless and practiced universally, had become dangerous once
enough people did it.
Missoula’s city government banned
the use of wood burning stoves and fireplaces in new buildings. The air would remain dirtier than some
liked but far cleaner than some would have preferred so long as they could have
a fireplace. ANY point between
zero regulation and no regulation could be criticized as inferior to some other
point along some principle or another.
Air that interfered with some people’s views might still be safe enough
What matters in such cases where a
range of options can appear reasonable is that the procedure for deciding the
issue be regarded as fair. Democratic procedures are more fair
than unanimity because, as James Madison pointed out, requiring more than a
majority can hold a majority hostage to an unprincipled minority, as California
and the US Senate have both discovered to their sorrow. Anything requiring less than a majority
means a minority could rule.
Relationships Are Primary
Property rights are not between me
and what I own, they are between me and you. They facilitate cooperation. Robinson Crusoe did not need them until Friday came
along. They draw the line between appropriate
relationships and inappropriate relationships. These principles are not “objective” but they are
fundamental to human life, and they need to be determined by some means. Democratic principles have been found
to be the most fair way to do so because losers on a particular issue can
believe they get a fair shake, and might even be winners the net time around.Therefore they can peacefully accept decisions with which they disagree.
In general, libertarians appear
to be intellectually rigorous in their
thinking because they dodge the tough initial issues, assume they are solved,
and then proceed as if these more fundamental issues no longer existed. In reality they are intellectually
rigorous once they have made arbitrary assumptions about the nature of
reality. In this libertarians are like the brighter Fundamentalists in interesting ways.
In all honesty I think it is even
harder to be a hard-core libertarian Pagan
than a libertarian in general, though I have known some and they were often
nice people. In Paganism as I
understand it and have experienced it the non-human world is also sentient and
alive to a degree denied by mainstream society. This means that issues of appropriate and inappropriate
relationships penetrate even more deeply into our interactions with the world
than they do for the average Christian or secularist. For Pagans issues of appropriate relationship include
plants, animals, and for some, myself included, the earth itself. The libertarian assumption that my
property is what I own and control appears as morally immature and even childish.