The Social Production of Libertarians

by Kieran Healy on June 9, 2004

I swear I had this post ready before all this stuff about positive and negative rights. My appetite for that kind of thing isn’t terribly high, except as an opportunity to think up slogans like “Libertarianism is the Socialism of Lawyers.” But a few months ago I made a passing comment that “Libertarianism has always seemed to me to depend for its realization on features of the social structure that it officially repuditates.” There’s probably a nice theory to be built about how this is true of all programmatic ideologies for social reorganization. For now, Peter Levine sketches some sociological ideas about Libertarianism in particular.

Libertarians should be much more concerned than they are with political socialization … If millions of kids grow up in communities that are wealthy but intolerant of public speech, they are likely to draw the conclusion that speech is detrimental to order and prosperity. As I wrote in my last post, this is political socialization for fascism.

Libertarians are loath to restrict private contracts, even those that voluntarily restrict speech. They have a point: we aren’t free if we cannot associate in intolerant communities. But if many people choose to ban freedom within their commonly-owned private property, then they are highly unlikely to raise libertarian kids. … The great libertarian economist Frank Knight wrote in 1939:

The individual cannot be the datum for the purposes of social policy, because he is largely formed by the social process, and the nature of the individual must be affected by social action. Consequently, social policy must be judged by the kind of individuals that are produced by or under it, and not merely by the type of relations which subsist among individuals taken as they stand.
Moral: if you want libertarian policies, you need “social processes” that make people libertarians, and those policies may not arise as a result of free choices by individuals “taken as they stand.”

One of the most famous examples in the Libertarian canon is Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain case which is used to show that, even if we start everyone with the same amount of money, the free transfer of resources through contract will likely cause a society to drift towards some unequal distribution—in this case, Wilt Chamberlain being much richer than everyone else because people are willing to pay money to see him play. Other Objections to this idea notwithstanding, Levine suggests that much the same process of drift could happen to the commitment to Libertarianism itself, not because people deprive themselves or others of their rights but because over time they and their children make a series of choices that create a culture where no-one wants to be a Libertarian. The easiest way to avoid the implications of this argument is to assert that people are just born with rational self-interest built-in, together with the required substantive libertarian preferences, but there’s too much empirical evidence against the former and no plausible story about the latter.

{ 28 comments }

1

Martin Wisse 06.09.04 at 10:01 pm

A similar point has been made by Conservative thinker John Gray in his book _False Dawn_, in which he argues that a free market, far from arising naturally, has to created by conscious governmental action. According to him, it is natural for people to repair the deficiencies of the free market by restricting it in some way.

2

Micha Ghertner 06.09.04 at 10:24 pm

I made the same argument a few months ago on Catallarchy, using the example of voluntarily-created Homeowners’ Associations with extremely restrictive covenants, and noted the similar problems this can cause for libertarians that Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument can cause for egalitarians.

One small quibble with Peter Levine’s post: I too favor pragmatic over philosophical libertarianism, but this doesn’t prevent me from being a (reasonably) coherent radical libertarian. I’m about as radical as they come, but my libertarianism springs from pragmatic, consequentialist justifications, not philosophical natural rights ones.

3

joe 06.09.04 at 10:33 pm

Most of the self-proclaimed anarchists I have met are not very cooperative. I have always wondered if they noticed the contradiction.

Similarly, the libertarians I run into outside of academic context invariably seem to be screeching at top volume about the unfairness of some commercial fiasco which is victimizing them.

When I realized that John Dewey tried to address these questions, I realized he was smarter than I’d given him credit for, but the only practical result was the public relations industry.

4

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.09.04 at 10:54 pm

“Libertarianism has always seemed to me to depend for its realization on features of the social structure that it officially repuditates.”

Funny thing is that this is precisely the argument that my mother makes regarding Western philosophers who reject Christianity while assuming the existance of many of its moral teachings.

5

neil 06.09.04 at 11:01 pm

“The individual cannot be the datum for the purposes of social policy, because he is largely formed by the social process, and the nature of the individual must be affected by social action.”

This is a Social Constructivist view of human nature which is pretty close to that of Marx and has very little empirical evidence to support it.

Individuals are not merely the product of Culture. Such statements as:

“If millions of kids grow up in communities that are wealthy but intolerant of public speech, they are likely to draw the conclusion that speech is detrimental to order and prosperity.”

imply a theory of how the human mind works that is not supported by the evidence. Totalitarian governments, no matter how hard they tried, did not produce children with no appreciation for free speech. It was fear and repression that kept people in line not some remoulding of the human condition.

Like most sociolgy there is much theorising and little data.

6

dipnut 06.09.04 at 11:55 pm

Libertarianism has always seemed to me to depend for its realization on features of the social structure that it officially repuditates.

Yup. Libertarians want the benefits of Rule Of Law, while jettisoning any institution that might positively secure those benefits.

Libertarians should be much more concerned than they are with political socialization…

I would say, they should be much more concerned with the institutional underpinnings of freedom. But then they’d be conservatives or “small l” libertarians such as you find at Reason Magazine.

Big L’s expect people to respect one another’s rights, while rejecting all but the flimsiest constraints which ensure such good behavior. You might say, the Libertarian project depends entirely on “socialization”, but by nature it can’t say how that socialization is to take place. Everyone is supposed to understand, and revere, an abstract argument for the necessity of self-restraint. This is presumed to happen without coercion or any institution which speaks in the name of society. Good luck with that.

…a free market, far from arising naturally, has to created by conscious governmental action.

A free market depends for its existence on certain institutions such as currency, contract enforcement, property rights, etc. Libertarians err in thinking these institutions can function absent the state.

Socialists, on the other hand, notice that free markets are founded on state institutions, and go on to say freedom is an illusion. It’s a sly way of arguing for market controls, edging toward utopia.

Note that both socialists and Libertarians conflate free with natural. The socialist says an unnatural market must be unfree, so what the hey, forget freedom. The Libertarian says, freedom is natural, therefore we don’t need no stinkin’ unnatural institutions.

…it is natural for people to repair the deficiencies of the free market by restricting it in some way.

No, the free market is essentially unnatural, but good. “To repair its deficiencies” is even more unnatural, and usually bad.

Usually. Bad.

7

Kieran Healy 06.10.04 at 12:26 am

This is a Social Constructivist view of human nature which is pretty close to that of Marx

Marx “did not have a social constructivist view of human nature.”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000092.html

Individuals are not merely the product of Culture

Nobody round here said they were.

Like most sociolgy there is much theorising and little data.

Like most blog comments there is much tendentiousness and little engagement with the topic at hand.

8

Jonathan Wilde 06.10.04 at 12:44 am

I think one of the most anti-libertarian environments is the public school environment. If libertarians want to create a social structure that favors the cultivation of libertarian views in children, the social milieu of public schools (and most private schools for that matter) is a significant obstacle.

9

neil 06.10.04 at 1:15 am

To claim that people are “largely formed by the social process” is to put forward a social constructivist argument, it is to claim that people are “largely” the product of Culture.

The arguement is not that Marx denied that there was such a such a thing as human nature but that that nature could be radically altered by the social enivronment. That human nature could be constructed.

I would have thought that asking that evidence should be produced for such claims as

“If millions of kids grow up in communities that are wealthy but intolerant of public speech, they are likely to draw the conclusion that speech is detrimental to order and prosperity.”

was only sensible. Have their been any studies that support this?

10

bob mcmanus 06.10.04 at 1:26 am

“Courtship Rite” by Donald Kingsbury

Unsupervised closed creches with a mix of ages, and fixed food supplies.

11

bob mcmanus 06.10.04 at 1:45 am

“the social milieu of public schools (and most private schools for that matter) is a significant obstacle.”

Should I expand on the above note? An interesting novel, whether or not dystopic depends on what you think a society is for. A fairly brutal idea, but if you want to generate good anarcho-libertarians, having 1 six-yr-old watch another six-yr-old die for stealing food is pretty good training in property rights.

12

Jonathan Lundell 06.10.04 at 2:09 am

My namesake suggests I think one of the most anti-libertarian environments is the public school environment. If libertarians want to create a social structure that favors the cultivation of libertarian views in children, the social milieu of public schools (and most private schools for that matter) is a significant obstacle.

On the other hand, the totalitarian environment of (most of) our schools fit us for our roles in the totalitarian environments of our corporations.

It’s curious (or ironic) that the “free market” creates social structures (corporations) in which individuals are anything but free.

13

Jeffrey Bogdan 06.10.04 at 2:50 am

The real problem with economic Libertarianism (I’m capitalizing it to set it off from left-leaning positions variously described as anarchism and libertarian socialism) is that the economic theories espoused by Libertarians, if actually implemented (which they never have been, always an advantage to abstract argument)would alsmost certainly work to undermine their stated goal of maximizing individual liberty.

For example, my gandmother died of complications of diabetes after a lifetime of failed attempts to make it as an independent businesswoman. At the end she died reasonably comfortably in a subsidized apartment with her doctor’s bills and medicines mostly paid for by the government. Who wants to argue that my grandmother would have been more free had it been accepted wisdom then that government cannot do anything right or even half-way useful?

Or take elections. Even an anarchist can’t wholely dispense with them. Now if Libertarianism inevitably tends toward inequality of economic resources (a point made in previous posts in this thread) and getting elected, at least in a country as large as ours, typically costs a shitload of money, who wants to argue that Libertarianism does not inevitably tend toward oligarchy? Having traveled in Central America, am always amused when I hear, for example, that tarrifs, taxes, restrictions on investments and encoragement of labor unions are “The Road to Sefdom.” I invite anyone who wants to observe how the 20th Century serf lives to visit El Salvador, which on paper, at least, ought to be a Libertarian paradise.

Finally, Libertarianism has never come to terms with the fact that most property and wealth are, if not actually held in the form of land, are derived ultimately from the uses to which land has been put by certain people who have claimed to own it. And at bottom, no one really owns land. You can claim (steal) it, sure. You can then pay or overthrow or, like the Texans, simply declare yourself to be, the governemt, and then develop all kinds of elaborate legal structures to protect your “propery rights.” But at bottom, you still don’t own it, you never did, how could you when, in the absence of some kind of world governing authority, all your legal theories are just wind when someone stronger than you, comes along to invalidate your claim.

Here in America–but elsewhere, too, I’ve no doubt, America being bigger and stronger but otherwise not all that different from any other place–the claim to property and wealth is complicated by the fact that most wealth, North and South, was originally created literally out of the blood and flesh of indigenous tribesmen and African slaves. You can’t tke two steps in America before the blood starts to stain your shoes and pucker your nostrils. Of course, those who believe that only the unexamined life is worth living don’t see it or smell it, but that’s not the people who write on this blog, right?

So does anyone want to argue that at a deep level the word “property” has any meaning at all?

14

Jonathan Wilde 06.10.04 at 2:57 am

Should I expand on the above note? An interesting novel, whether or not dystopic depends on what you think a society is for. A fairly brutal idea, but if you want to generate good anarcho-libertarians, having 1 six-yr-old watch another six-yr-old die for stealing food is pretty good training in property rights.

Yikes!

15

Markus 06.10.04 at 3:02 am

Neil,

I think there’s a difference of opinion on what ‘social construction’ is. Berger & Luckmann would say something like: ‘the sociological method of social constructionism is to look at the ways a social phenomenon is created, institutionalized and made into tradition by humans.’ You’re definition is that social construction is the shaping of humans by society/culture. That’s not the standard sociological definition.

You first said ‘merely,’ then you said ‘largely.’ There’s quite a difference there. To hold that individuals are shaped (to some degree) by society/culture is perhaps the fundamental tenet of sociology and anthropology. I’m not sure how this generalization can be disputed.

The empirical claim at hand certainly could though, but that’s a different thing altogether.

16

Jonathan Wilde 06.10.04 at 3:03 am

On the other hand, the totalitarian environment of (most of) our schools fit us for our roles in the totalitarian environments of our corporations.

Good point. Perhaps that is a good reason to reform schools.

17

belle waring 06.10.04 at 4:02 am

And a pony. Just thought I’d mention that.

18

q 06.10.04 at 4:16 am

A couple of libertarians I have known used to get bullied at school, and seemed to have become disconnected from fellow children. This disconnectedness seems to have focussed their minds of the dangers to individuals of oppression, and opposition to group and herd mentalities.

One of them is fond of saying “I would prefer 9 murderers go free, than 1 innocent man be locked up”.

19

Lance Boyle 06.10.04 at 5:56 am

Of course Jeffrey Bogdan’s correct; but of course I’d say that, wouldn’t I?
How much of this debate would crystallize in the urgency of disaster, or post-disaster? If we had to create workable systems, now.
And isn’t that the more accurate view? More accurate than this tacit assumption of a slightly less ignorant slightly less enlightened prior world? And especially the unspoken but felt prognosis of virtually permanent stability and social cohesion.
We’re crawling naked out of a swamp of miasmic ignorance into a jungle of shrieking predatory madness.
And that’s just 19th century American capitalism.

Are the institutions we live at the whim of capable of weathering turbulent chaotic change?
So much of this debate seems centered in a given world of relative prosperity and mild controllable cultural flux.
That was the real threat behind the so-called hippies. Who were a media creation – the successful attempt to control that bright and joyous anarchy begun with a derogatory naming. What was there before that name was shackled to it was even more vibrant, and free, and thus more threatening still. To what now only begins to see itself, mirrored in the colorless lens of its security cameras.

Libertarians are the osteopaths of social theory.

20

JRoth 06.10.04 at 6:39 pm

Is sebastian’s mother aware that morality was not invented by Christians? And that many cultures have developed comparable moralities entirely independent of Christianity? Heck, CS Lewis argued that the universality of basically Christian morals (summed up, of course, by the Golden Rule) was positive evidence for the existence of the Christian god.

Furthermore, Western philosophy has developed from both Christian and pagan roots, suggesting that its humanist basis is not wholly (if at all?) dependent on Christianity.

21

Mike Huben 06.10.04 at 8:09 pm

The real reason public schools are anathema to libertarianism is because they are dedicated to what libertarians call a positive right: to publicly financed education for all.

The great fault of libertarianism is the assumption that independent, empowered, rational, free agents are all that’s required for justice. Sorry, kids don’t qualify as those sorts of agents. Nor do we qualify in debility. Nor do people think that’s all there is to justice. When you can’t get a basic assumption to align with reality, you’ve got a pretty serious problem.

22

scott 06.11.04 at 12:15 am

ah yes, mike huben and his pathological hatred of libertarianism show up again.

government is nothing more than a group of such agents (but hardly rational), and with much more power than ordinary citizens. a power that should be limited as much as possible.

why is government necessary for people to collectively decide on justice?

23

scott 06.11.04 at 12:15 am

ah yes, mike huben and his pathological hatred of libertarianism show up again.

government is nothing more than a group of such agents (but hardly rational), and with much more power than ordinary citizens. a power that should be limited as much as possible.

why is government necessary for people to collectively decide on justice?

24

Mike Huben 06.11.04 at 1:08 am

Projecting again, Scott whoever you are? I notice you don’t seem able to address any points.

25

Peter Levine 06.11.04 at 1:55 pm

I agree that it is “sensible” (as Neil says) to ask for evidence that zones without public free speech will produce illiberal children. It’s possible that kids who grow up in anti-free-speech zones will rebel and strongly embrace freedom. No specifically relevant evidence has been collected (to my knowledge). In fact, there is a serious lack of basic data about homeowner asociations and their residents–even the total number is unknown.

However, there is a vast amount of evidence about the effects on family environments on political beliefs and attitudes. This evidence does not come from sociology but rather from political science and psychology. Tell me the political profile of someone’s parents and I can predict his or her political beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes 40 years later, with only a modest degree of statistical variance. Tell me the degree of political competition in a child’s congressional district and I can predict his or her likelihood to vote much later in life. (More competition creates more interest in politics.)

The bigger point is that political socialization ought to concern libertarians because something is keeping most of their fellow citizens from embracing the liberties that they favor. I agree that it’s very difficult to predict the pyschological effects of new social arrangements. Social engineering is generally unwise– for this reason and others. But it IS wise to worry about the political/pyschological impact of family arrangements. This is a consistent theme in political thought from Plato through Tocqueville, but it is relatively undeveloped in modern libertarian thought.

26

scott 06.11.04 at 4:15 pm

i was questioning [i]your[/i] statements you twit.

27

joe 06.12.04 at 6:15 pm

Is this the right room for an argument?

The “followup” comment from _pedantry_ about the fair-to-middling worthlessness of the discussion is depressingly accurate. Didn’t Plato’s Socrates explain a cycle of governmental forms, each one mechanically producing the other within a few generations as a result of the effect upon the populace? Wouldn’t that be a more sensible example of follow-up discussion than the transposition into standing arguments that contain the word “libertarian”?

Does history provide empirical data to look at, or do we have to generate all our political ideas logically from first principles? A first approximation of history seems to show that oligarchical empire is best at perpetuating itself (Rome, China, etc.) since the political identity of leading citizens involves devotion to the state’s high “culture”, the compelling beauty of which is an existence proof of the justice of whatever arrangements provide political stability. Or has culture been deconstructed, and though the Romans, Chinese etc. thought they were motivated by it, we have since discovered they were mistaken?

28

Chris G 06.13.04 at 9:09 am

Finally, Libertarianism has never come to terms with the fact that most property and wealth are, if not actually held in the form of land, are derived ultimately from the uses to which land has been put by certain people who have claimed to own it.

Not to undermine your astute comment, but I would deny your apparent claim that all wealth is derived from natural resources. No natural resource can become a finished good without labor. One does not have to be a “big-L” libertarian to think one has a right to his own labor.

Obviously the acceptance self-ownership and denyal of ownership of natural resources leads to conflcit. Fortunatly, Henry George wrote about this issue 125 years ago. Vallentyne and Steiner frame the problem in a modern context in thier anthology Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics It’s probably inappropriate to get into the details of the arguements here, but these works do a beautiful job of argueing certain degrees of egalitarianism (especially in natural resources) from strictly libertarian premises.

However, this line of thought is abandoned by most libertarians. Murry Rothbard did write about the issue a few times, but I am unconvinced by his arguements. Most libertarians I try to dicuss this with are hostile to the idea of the single tax, which would justify a (*gasp*) state.

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