Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Libertarianism and Communitarianism

The argument over the moral underpinnings of libertarianism basically boils down to the fact that there is necessarily a communitarian element to ethics. If we accept that libertarianism means radical individualism, then libertarian ethics appears to be an oxymoron. And for those libertarians who do believe in the Cartesian form of individualism as the basis of libertarianism, it likely is an oxymoron. I’m not sure a libertarianism whose philosophical underpinnings are the same as those that gave us the French Revolution (especially the Terror), Naziism, and Communism is the kind of libertarianism we really want.
But there is another option: the option of the Scottish philosophers, and the communitarian individualism they espoused. In the Cartesian version, the person is a radical individual who defines himself, preferably apart from society. In the Scottish version, the person is an individual imbedded in a nested hierarchy of communities, including nuclear and extended families, churches, workplaces, schools, neighborhood and communities, towns and cities, counties, states, and nations. We are defined in various ways by each of these things, and we are different people in each of these different situations. Thus is our individuality defined within our social situation. Recent studies in anthropology, ethology, and primatology have shown that the Scottish philosophical tradition is much more accurate than is the Cartesian tradition.
At different levels within the hierarchy, we should expect different levels of communitarianism. Those levels wherein we can have the most information about the members within the level can and should be the most communitarian – and should therefore have the strongest moral rules. The family is a good example of this. No one in their right mind would want to run their household according to libertarian principles – this would be a recipe for disaster in raising children. As Walter Williams once said in a talk I saw him give: Marxism works, it’s how one should run one’s household. You should expect more from your spouse, and give more to your children. At this level, it is easy, as it is easy to keep up with the names. But when you cannot keep up with the names, when you can no longer recognize what is best for each individual (which you cannot do for someone whose name you do not know), then you have to ease the communitarian principles.
Churches, workplaces, and schools – and, to some extent, neighborhoods, communities, and towns – are places we voluntarily become members of. By joining these groups, we agree to their set of rules. Here we have a level of voluntary communitarianism – and if you are not a child, all communitarianism should be voluntary. And that is why all communitarianism should also be highly local – if we do not like the rules of the group we have joined, we can always vote with our feet. The problem with having communitarian states and nations is precisely that when we are talking about the size of a state or a nation, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to vote with one’s feet. Also, at these levels, it becomes increasingly difficult for the leaders to know the names of those they rule – and as such, they become increasingly ignorant of what is actually best for the citizens.
As we get farther away, as more people become included in the social system, as we have in a state or nation – or even in a large city – the ignorance of the leaders increases, and the only ethical approach to governance is precisely libertarianism. It is here where individualism should be taken into consideration, as it is the individual who is most affected by the laws passed at this level, even though they are farthest away from the leaders. At this level, one cannot make ethical choices for others, as you do not know the people well enough to know everything about them, to understand their overall circumstances. This is not to say that we should not have any ethical laws: what else are laws against the use of force or fraud, the only laws libertarians think governments should have? But these are laws that make sense to apply to everyone, across the board, regardless of race, religion, economic situation, etc. These are laws that are laws in every society, throughout human history and pre-history. But those ethical issues for which there is any debate should be avoided by states and nations. Those are values that can and should be taken into consideration closer to home. They are the communitarian values.
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