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.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Values and the Election

For many years it was a common adage – believed equally by the Republicans and the Democrats – that high voter turnout was bad for the Republicans. Well, so much for that theory. This year’s election totals are among the highest in American history, and President Bush won re-election with well over 3 million votes. And he brought with him an increase in seats in both the House and the Senate, thus breaking another stereotype of the incumbent losing seats in their re-elections.
What will be the results of this? One hopes that there will be less interest by the Republicans in suppressing the vote (however much this is actually true, and not Democrat propaganda – a good possibility, since they are very good at propaganda, as one sees in their convincing African Americans to vote Democrat, even though it was a Republican President who sent the national guard into Little Rock to force integration, there was a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats who voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and it was Richard Nixon who instituted Affirmative Action). At the same time, we may begin to see Democrats trying to do what they can to suppress votes – especially in the South.
We might also see increased interest in both parties in social conservatism. It was ethical issues, after all, that led in exit polls among reasons why people voted for Bush. I doubt that the Republicans can get much more conservative for Americans, but certainly the Democrats can. And if they want to win in the South, West, and certain parts of the Midwest, they will have to. It seems very likely that both parties will become more communitarian – a trend libertarians will have to work hard to hold in check. If the Democrats become more socially conservative, and Bush continues to spend money like a Democrat, the slim differences between the parties will become slimmer.
Of course, in the near future, we can probably expect the Democrats to become more shrill – including on social issues. The citizens of the flyover states will likely be decried as backwards barbarians little better than the Taliban in their support for oppressing homosexuals’ rights. If they take that approach, we can expect some backlash against the Democrats in the midterm elections in two years. If the Democrats take another election hit, I have little doubt that they will indeed start trending toward social conservatism.
So what is a libertarian to do? I’m not sure we can do much in the near future. We may be entering into a new "ethical" cycle, as much in response to the postmoderns’ insistence that there are no values as anything else (and the problem with Kerry was precisely that – he did not represent civil libertarian values, because he did not represent any kind of values at all). With 9-11, we saw what happens when people do not value life. And this election was a response to that kind of lack of values. With 9-11, we saw what those who preach against values really meant. Between Bush and Kerry, it was Bush who represented values, and in a country who is slowly rediscovering the value of values, we should not be surprised at a Bush win.
If we want to protect libertarian ethics, we need to make the argument precisely from the position of ethics and values. Our arguments have to become more substantial and, at the same time, more impassioned. People support those who are passionate enough in something to express emotions – reason is hardly, and never has been, enough. And we cannot rely on the Democrats to articulate these values either, as they do not believe in them as values, but only as pragmatic positions to get them votes from certain segments of society, any more than we can rely on Republicans to support true free markets and the sciences (many of those who voted on values are also those who do not believe the universe began in a Big Bang, or that evolution is a fact – two dangerous positions for the advance of the sciences). If we want to protect our values, we have to do it ourselves – and we have to do it precisely by articulating them as values. That should be the lesson learned from this election.