I don’t consider myself a libertarian any more, and am not sure I ever was one in a wholehearted way, but I can say this much: once upon a time, I held a more clearly libertarian position about politics than I currently do. I heard a story on NPR yesterday that reminded me of a puzzle that my libertarian commitments generated (in combination with some of the commitments that I took to cohere with it), but that I never ended up resolving. Maybe some reader can resolve the puzzle and tell me where I went wrong.
Let’s call the two basic commitments neo-Aristotelian welfarism and libertarianism, both of Objectivist inspiration. Neo-Aristotelian welfarism says that survival qua human, understood on a virtue-ethical account, is the ultimate human value. Libertarianism says that force ought never to be initiated. One policy implication of libertarianism is what we may call roll back: the privatization or abolition of those parts of the state that exceed the limits set by libertarianism. I’m going to glide over a huge host of complications here, including how exactly the two commitments fit together, whether they lead to a minimal state or anarchism, what counts as a force-initiation, etc. There’s more than enough material here to generate the aporia that led me to normative paralysis. The relevant issue here is simply how to reconcile libertarian roll back with welfarism.
Given the preceding, I inferred the following:
If libertarianism is to be put into practice, the state has to be “rolled back.”
If libertarianism is to be put into practice consistently with welfarism, libertarian roll back must not violate welfarism.
Any policy that leads to a net loss of life violates welfarism.
Hence if libertarianism is to be put into practice consistently with welfarism, roll back cannot lead to net loss of life.
If libertarianism is true, it must (somehow) be put into practice.
If libertarianism’s truth is underwritten by neo-Aristotelian welfarism, it must be put into practice consistently with (that) welfarism.
Having assumed the antecedents of (5) and (6) from the start, the rest followed. So (4) became a stricture (one of many, as I saw it) on libertarian roll back. But (4) also became a source of paralysis.
Here’s an example of why, from the NPR story I mentioned before. From the opening to the story:
New hope this week for tens of thousands of patients living with cystic fibrosis. Scientists have unveiled a promising therapy – a combination of three drugs that target a genetic mutation that causes cystic fibrosis, which affects the lungs and can cause respiratory failure. This new therapy could benefit 90% of patients with the disease.
Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health, and he’s one of the scientists who discovered the gene defect behind cystic fibrosis 30 years ago.
Apply the roll back argument above, and you quickly hit paralysis. The research in question was funded by the NIH. Suppose that libertarianism entails that the NIH’s existence exceeds libertarian bounds. Then libertarian roll back entails the privatization or abolition (or both, in part) of the NIH. But now suppose that privatizating or abolishing the NIH would lead (or might plausibly be thought to lead) to a net increase* in lives lost, relative to keeping the NIH in place and continuing the research in question (or better yet, keeping it in place and increasing the funding for that research). Then the argument above implies that the NIH should be kept in place, at least at its current levels of funding. Now imagine that there are lots of examples like this one. Then a libertarian like Earlier Me will be led to a lot of normative paralysis, as I was.**
Notice that part of the issue here involves transition costs under path dependent circumstances. The question we face is not simply: which institutional arrangement leads, in the abstract, to better results (bracketing how we conceptualize “leads to better results” so as not to lapse into a problematic form of consequentialism)? The question is: given path dependency, would the transition costs of a move from where we are to libertarianism lead to costs that wouldn’t be incurred if we didn’t make that move? Call me a wimp, but whenever I answered “yes,” I backpedaled on my libertarian commitments. And call me paranoid, but I often answered “yes.”
Notice, also, that stricture (4) might be one of a set of similar strictures, some more stringent than (4). You might think that “net loss of life” is too low a bar to function as the only stricture on libertarian roll back. A more stringent one might be:
(4*) If libertarianism is to be put into practice consistently with welfarism, roll back cannot lead to a net diminution in human progress (understood in welfarist terms).
Granted, the very stringency of (4*) puts it in danger of begging the question against libertarianism. If roll back is not just instrumental to but constitutive of human progress (and in some cases, I agree that it is), then apparent gains in progress that are produced by state action are all ill-gotten. In that case, (4*) becomes hard to conceptualize, much less to put into practice. If the state produces human progress, but does so by illegitimate means, and roll back is progress, then it’s not clear how to proceed. On the one hand, we could think of the state’s (supposed) contribution to progress as pseudo-progress, and think of roll back as an attempt to harvest the “real” progress illegitimately captured by it. But we could also, on the other hand, think of the state’s contributions as real progress, and think of roll back as potentially setting that progress back in unacceptable ways. As I see it, reflection on different cases leads to different verdicts without a clear overall verdict on all of them at once.
This last issue is what I never resolved, partly because I never resolved the fundamental issue at the heart of it–how welfarism coheres with libertarianism in the first place. The only route to coherence seemed to be a Stoic-Objectivist interpretation of welfarism that I couldn’t bring myself to accept.*** On this hypothetical view, force-initiations never lead to anything of value, and are always unjust, so that nothing is ever lost in abolishing them. Whereas my view is that even if force-initiations are wrong, it can be just to free-ride on them, and just to leave them in place. There are further questions about whether they all are wrong, and what counts as a force-initiation to begin with.
So go back to the NPR story about cystic fibrosis. The recent breakthrough discussed in the story seems an enormous triumph by welfarist standards, well worth the celebration described there. As I see it, rolling back the NIH would either violate (4) or a plausible version of (4*). So would I roll back the NIH? No. Would I vote to increase its funding? I might. Does that put me in a weird position, normatively speaking? Yes. Should I find a way out, and a way back to the libertarian position I once held? You tell me.
*Fixed a math error there after posting. I had originally written “decrease.”
**Put differently, I was led to paralysis on some issues but not others, which entailed a change of emphasis from cases where roll back violated welfarist strictures to cases where it clearly seemed not to. But there was more than enough paralysis there to set me apart from libertarians eager to abolish or privatize large swatches of the state.
***See Richard Kraut, “Aristotelianism and Libertarianism,” Critical Review 11:3 (1997). See also Tara Smith’s Viable Values, pp. 167-174. In fairness to her, Smith doesn’t explicitly deal with the problem mentioned in the text, but in fairness to what I say in the text, that’s part of what I take to be the problem with both orthodox Objectivism and standard-issue libertarianism.
(Yes, I realize that Jefferson Starship has almost nothing to do with the topic of this post.)