Are Libertarians neutral?

There seems to be a popular, but mistaken, opinion that Libertarianism is somehow a neutral position—that it does not take a stance on a variety of issues.  Consider the following statement by Penn Jillette in his article ‘I don’t know, so I’m an atheist libertarian’:

And I don’t think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don’t even know what’s best for me. Take my uncertainty about what’s best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.

Since Jillette doesn’t know how the government should help people, he concludes that any philosophy attempting to dictate the government’s behavior in this area is problematic. So, he’s not going to advocate any specific governmental stance.

I sense we’ve just entered a cul-de-sac. Notice that this position is at once a denial that any approach is valid and is itself a recommended approach. Libertarians do not lack a moral, economic, or political stance. No, they advocate very specific stances. For this reason, the idea of purist laissez faire is a self-defeating and absurd principle.


So, where do we go from here?

First and foremost, let’s stop pretending that the debate is about the level of government intrusion. We aren’t ready for that yet. The debate is really about what goods should flourish. Government involvement is not itself virtuous or vicious; it is merely a means to an end. It requires context.

If we turn our attention back to Jillette’s article as whole, we should be able to recognize that his isn’t really an opinion based on not knowing, as he claims. Rather, it is based on his feeling that coercion is vicious. Thus, since government intrusion is coercion, it should not be allowed. This is a very different argument than saying, ‘I don’t know, so I’m not going to take a stance.’

Once we recognize that this is really the context of our disagreements, I think some real progress can be made. Of course we will disagree about the level of government involvement in public life when we are working from different conceptions of the good! That is where we should focus our discussion instead.


Is freedom the ultimate good?

I want to propose something for Libertarians to consider. But first, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine you are observing a society of painters. According to the people in this society, the greatest good is to paint. It doesn’t matter if other people like what you create because painting is good for its own sake. The government recognizes this good and acts to protect it in a minimalist way. If anyone’s ability to paint is inhibited, the government has a duty to protect the individual’s right to paint.

This situation is fairly analogous to the Libertarian position, except replace painting as the greatest good with individual freedom. The duty to protect against infringement seems obvious enough. But let’s consider a further point. Should the government also ensure an environment where the greatest good can flourish? For example, what if no one in the imaginary society has access to paint or brushes or easels? Should the government provide those resources?

It all depends on whether the good is painting itself or the right to paint. If painting itself is the good, then we should ensure the flourishing of the good itself. If it is the right to paint that is the good, then it is sufficient to only ensure no individual’s painting is specifically inhibited.

Where freedom is concerned, there are conditions which must be met in order to allow the flourishing of free choices. These include life, as well as general mental and physical health. Imagine your ability to really make free choices without these conditions.

So, what is the ultimate good? Is it the right to make free choices or is the good embodied in the act of making free choices? If it is the act, then the government should be responsible for ensuring the conditions necessary for that act to flourish. This means they are at least responsible for some basic amount of healthcare, shelter, nourishment, and the like. It doesn’t have to be excessive, but enough to allow people to survive and freely choose the type of life they want.

Perhaps, though, you might try and argue that the mere right is the good, rather than the act. I think a brief thought experiment can show this position to be untenable. Imagine a futuristic society that is run by robots. This isn’t too difficult since it is a very minimal administrative duty. They only provide enforcement against those who inhibit the freedom of others, like a police force. But a plague unexpectedly devastates the society. The human citizens all either die or are hospitalized and delirious. If you think the mere presence of the right to make free choices is sufficient for the good being present, then you think this society is an example of the good flourishing. After all, there is not a single person whose ability to make free choices is inhibited by the choices of another. But surely this is absurd! No free choices are actually being made. How can this be an embodiment of the good?

I consider this to be a fundamental flaw for a strict Libertarian philosophy. It views freedom as the ultimate good, but does not recognize a further duty for the government to ensure the necessary conditions for making free choices are met.

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