Democraphobia

Will Wilkinson describes a democracy phobia amongst many Libertarians.  It’s a view he doesn’t share, and neither do I.

If you’re a new-school classical liberal (neoclassical liberal?) like me, you like democracy just fine. This puts you somewhere between (a) modern liberals in the post-Rawlsian vein who tend toward not-actually-very-liberal Rousseuvian romanticism about democracy and (b) libertarians who tend toward often not-very-liberal renunciations of democracy. I want to talk about these libertarians. Here are some off-the-cuff (that means disorganized) thoughts.

First, I think it’s important to recognize that libertarian democraphobia often comes from a deeply liberal place. The libertarian non-coercion principle is a good abstract first approximation of the liberal presupposition that persons are free and equal. No one has a natural right to rule over another, and no one has a natural duty to obey. The liberal presupposition sets a high bar for the justification of coercion, and thus the justification of the state. Many libertarians think there is no justification. Therefore the only acceptable rule of collective choice is unanimity or full consensus. This is one focus of the debate between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians. On the anarchist side, political power cannot get off the ground, and thus the design of mechanisms to control political power is a non-issue. On the limited-statist side, political power does get off the ground, and thus so does the design of constitutions and democratic institutions. I think this divide is far wider than is reflected in the libertarian community, and part of the reason is that limited-government libertarians tend to internalize more of the anarchist framework than they logically should.

He goes on to discuss the choice some Libertarians prefer which is to take a page out of American Settlers Handbook and take off to some DIY frontier.   Wilkinson see’s this as a head-in-sand solution.

But I don’t think they take seriously enough the problem of governance in the DIY frontier. One can avoid politics and democratic conflict in the short-run through self-segregation. But this tends not to last that long. (See: the Pilgrims in Massachusets; the Mormons in Deseret/Utah) And I have questions about how well the Friedman plan can scale, as newcomers come to the settled frontier, and as pioneers raise children who do not share the consensus of the initial settlement. Sooner or later the problem of pluralism and moral disagreement will rear its head, and there are liberal and illiberal ways to respond. If the response is to maintain the consensus of self-segregation by evicting inevitable dissidents, one begins to wonder what to call those with the power to evict. At a certain point, the differences between a sovereign monarch and a monopoly landlord becomes semantic.

In other words, it’s important for Libertarians who really aren’t Anarchists to accept that government is here to stay, and then think practically about how to deal with that.

The underlying libertarian ideals of individual sovereignty and dignity are universal.  Many people I talk to, after I explain why I feel comfortable calling myself a libertarian, realize that they agree with me on a large number of issues.  But, as a group, we Libertarians have never done much of a good job at instigating the necessary PR campaign to get the Montana-cabin-dwelling-old-prospector image of Libertarians out of the minds the public.

Democrats have tree-huggers, Republicans have religious fanatics, and Libertarians have the Unibomber.  Not good!

Will finishes with a great point:

Most libertarians don’t want to move to man-made islands. Most don’t even want to help take over New Hampshire. If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we’ve got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We’ve got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them. Otherwise, we should probably just accept that libertarianism is a niche creed for weird people and reconcile ourselves to impotent, self-righteous grousing. Or get serious about life on the sea. For my part, I’m going to continue to try to convince people that free markets and limited goverment are better than they might have thought.

For me, this is more reason to align with Democrats, and stop griping so much about taxes.  As far as “wrongs” committed by the state against a free people go, taxing them is pretty low on the list.  The goals of legalizing gay marriage, marijuana, promoting equality in the work place, and opening the boarder more to immigrants who want to work are all FAR more important.  The Dems tend to agree with us on these things, and the Republicans are fanatically (and religiously) against them!

We have three choices:  run off to the woods and cry about an “unjust” government; join with Republicans who think our support of gay rights will land us in Hell;  or join with democrats who will chastise us for our free-market tendencies, but otherwise dig our ultra-leftist stance on social issues (more left than many of their views).  That’s an easy choice for me.

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2 responses to “Democraphobia

  1. The practicality of aligning with Democrats is akin to one of my reasons I keep liking the anarchist ideas I run across. (The other reason is that they don’t send me junk mail.) I hope it’s obvious from our discussions that when I have outlandish ideas, I know they’re outlandish! But the concept of my own utopia is what helps me figure out more commonplace decisions, which might be too small to have a real emotional effect unless I consider them in the grander scheme of things.

  2. I can understand that. It’s like recycling. Recycling a singe plastic bottle isn’t meaningful in and of itself. But, considered in the larger scheme where everybody does the same thing, it does have meaning.

    My struggle with Utopian ideas (including, if not especially, those of Libertarians) is that they are often based on false conceptions of reality (of human nature, the nature of markets, etc). That is, they are really just fantasies, like a world where dragons exist and I can sprout wings at will. All the following conclusions based on this perception of reality can be lock solid, but what is that really telling us?

    This kind of thing is what bothers so many Liberals (like us) about Conservative Christians: they are making their policy decisions against the backdrop of a Christian Utopia. But that Utopia is itself based on false (or what you and I would consider false) premises. That doesn’t mean automatically that their conclusions are wrong, but it DOES make their reasoning suspect.

    Recycling can have meaning in the broader view precisely because there is a lot of well researched science that suggests that it should have an impact if 1) we can get everyone on board, and 2) we don’t make it so complicated that people won’t do it out of laziness (that is we take a realistic view of human nature). I’m not so sure the Utopian visions of Libertarians, Anarchists, or the Christian Right, can say the same since they DON’T take a realistic view of human nature.

    Outlandish ideas are good because they help us think outside the box. Most of us are decent at recognizing outlandish ideas for what they are, and can use them as idea generators. But, there are plenty in these extreme-leaning groups we’re associated with (to at least some degree) that can’t tell the difference.

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