Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rights, liberty and community.

Libertarianism, the philosophy of a free social order, is often misunderstood. Unfortunately it is often misunderstood by libertarians themselves.

The other day I was reading an article which equated libertarianism with individualism as opposed to collectivism. The definitions of the terms are often fuzzy but, strictly speaking, a free society could be either individualistic or collectivistic. All a free society requires is freedom of choice. Should the members of that society voluntarily subject themselves to collective ownership of property or the means of production, for instance, there is nothing in libertarianism to forbid it, or condemn it. What libertarianism is concerned about is whether or not the members of that collective truly were free to accept or reject it.

Libertarians recognize that each person has rights but we also accept that any of us may voluntarily restrict our own rights. For instance, we may surrender freedom of speech. A church is a collective body based on a religious or ethical system of beliefs. It may decide that some ideas are doctrinal and other heretical. And it may state that membership in the collective body requires that one forgo the expression of ideas considered heretical. Any member that violates this restriction may be expelled from the body.

Most of us voluntarily surrender wide areas of rights on a daily basis. When we go shopping for instance, we surrender our freedom to the rules that the shopping mall may outline. While we support the right to smoke that right is contextual. The right to smoke does not include, and can not include, the right to smoke on someone else’s property without their consent. A shopping mall may restrict access to individuals who are unwilling to abide by that rule.

Virtually all stores and malls that I can think have an unspoken, but widely understood, rule requiring shoppers to remain clothed. This, however, is not necessarily true in all stores in all places. The BBC reports that England has had a series of nude shopping events and the Cap A’dge community, which is quite large, in France has nude shopping on a daily basis -- and pretty much nude anything else as well.

Libertarianism doesn’t speak to the rules or regulations that voluntary communities establish for themselves provided that membership is voluntary.

The reason there is so much confusion about libertarian theories is because libertarianism arose as a theory inside involuntary communities. We are all members of involuntary communities, which we call the states. Simultaneously we are also members of voluntary communities.

Where libertarianism is weakest is that many libertarians, advocates of the pure voluntary community, can only address issues if they arise within the utopia which does not exist. Individuals who tend in this utopian direction are incapable of explaining any process by which their utopia may be achieved. Since issues are intertwined they will tend to tell you that to deal with one distortion caused by the political process you must address all the other problems simultaneously. We see this from utopian libertarians in regards to the marriage equality issue.

They will argue equal marriage rights should not be given to same-sex couples because the state should not be involved in marriage at all. When you point out the dozens of other issues of state involvement which are directly tied to marriage they then tell you how all those issues have to simultaneously solved as well. For instance, they will argue that the involuntary state should not be involved in marriage so gays should not have equal marriage rights. If you bring up the problem of allowing spouses of Americans to immigrate they will tell you they don’t want immigration laws either. So now, before justice can be done for gay couples in these circumstances, you must abolish both state marriage for everyone as well as immigration laws. Unfair tax laws that penalize gay couples are another example. While marriage rights would solve all such problems for these couples the utopians suggest waiting until all these laws can be reformed first. The absurdity is that neither marriage, immigration laws or taxes are likely to be abolished in our lifetime so the utopians are suggesting gay couples just deal with the injustices inflicted on them until they die. Then they will be shocked when they find gay people uninterested in this “solution”.

Even more bizarre is that they are wrong about whether a libertarian society would have marriage laws or not. Various private social arrangements may exist and entire communities may well be formed with voluntary membership. These communities may well have marriage laws. Just as they might have taxes or regulation of speech or other issues. And there is nothing unlibertarian with this if the community members are there voluntarily.

It is quite easy to be confused as to whether you are speaking about an involuntary community or a voluntary one. When a libertarian says that a libertarian society would not have marriage laws, or taxes, or other regulations, they are actually addressing the unethical nature of the involuntary community only. In voluntary communities, founded around common value systems, all these things might well exist and would be within the ethics of libertarianism.

The ideal libertarian society is one where were all community is voluntary. The reality is that no such society currently exists. What do exist are shadows and glimpses of that community. The countless voluntary communities that exist around speak volumes to what a truly free society might be like. We can look at the multiplicity of voluntary communities that arise in a social order of freedom and, from that, we can extrapolate what the ideal might look like.

Many on the Left speak of diversity but where we see true diversity is throughout the voluntary communal sphere not within the involuntary state. Top-down controls tend to create a gray conformity at some mediocre central point of consensus. It does not allow the true diversity which is open to humanity to exist. Where human diversity does tend to break out the bureaucrats use their little hammers to knock it back down again.

Take the example of state schooling as an example. Government controlled state institutions have a large degree of sameness everywhere. Government operatives go to great lengths to ensure that this “sameness” is imposed across the entire region where they have political control. In contrast, voluntary educational organizations are widely diverse, often with very different approaches to the same subject. For example there is light-years of difference between a Summerhill and a Bob Jones University.

One example of the state’s tendency to extinguish diversity can be seen in the European Union. As the EU centralized political power the EU bureaucrats immediately went to work regulating the most mundane things. Every aspect of life was suddenly open to their controls. They immediately started regulating what sort of sausages one can make and mandating their size, recipes, etc. Consider this highlight of EU regulations:
Now greengrocers will have to ensure that under EU regulation 2257/94 their bananas are at least 13.97cm (5.5in) long and 2.69cm (1.06in) round and do not have "abnormal curvature", as set out in an eight-page directive drawn up in 1994.
With the regulators it is all the same. Be it children or bananas or wealth, they demand conformity. They intentionally promote policies to force everyone into the moulds they create. Where the market process can adjust and accommodate differences the political process is not flexible. It is a rigid system and diversity only clogs up its gears.

In his classic book, Bureaucracy, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, "the first step [in bureaucratic management] is to obtain the consent of old men accustomed to do things in prescribed ways, and no longer open to new ideas. No progress and no reforms can be expected in a state of affairs where the first step is to obtain the consent of old men. The pioneers of new methods are considered rebels and are treated as such. For a bureaucratic mind, law abidance, i.e., clinging to the customary and antiquated is the first of all virtues." British socialist Evan Luard noted that "collective power is also conservative because within the democratic system, political parties and leaders are obliged to converge to a point near the average views of the majority....Because the majority are rarely in favour of important or imaginative changes, this inhibits any radical challenge to the status quo."

This conservatism is apparent in all bureaucratic system. Ideas and individuals outside the mainstream are rejected and the system does not allocate resources for their use. A centrally planned economy is simply the bureaucratic method of management carried to its ultimate extreme. The result is the stifling of creativity and diversity. Old ways are clung to because promotions in the system are given to those who don't rock the boat. It is not necessary to meet the needs and wants of the consumer because advancement is not based on the generation of profits as it is in the profit management system. Innovations, which often appeal to small minorities, are stifled since the system ignores them.

Gordon Tullock, in his Politics of Bureaucracy, showed that a bureaucratic system has several problems. First, the structure is centralized with the older superiors having control over their subordinates and secondly, most subordinates are self-interested and thus unwilling to challenge their superiors. In the marketplace profits act as a countervailing force against conservatism. The innovative or radical, which appeals to even a small group can produce profits which reward change.

Within the state bureaucratic system there is no counter-force encouraging individuals to promote new ideas. Thus the same force, self-interest, encourages diversity in a voluntary economy but discourages it in a bureaucratic economy. In the market economy self-interested individual wants to profit and can only do so by meeting the needs of consumers. In the bureaucratic system advancement comes only by meeting the expectations of Mises' "old men."

In the democratically controlled bureaucracy, something considered ideal by democratic socialists the plight of innovators is even worse. In other versions of the involuntary, centralized state innovators had to convince the “old men”. Sometimes this was a small gang of rulers or even just one individual. Innovators, or minorities seeking access to resources, had some chance of persuading these small groups to consider their ideas or needs. In the democratic socialist community the same minorities or innovators have to persuade the majority to support them. An example of how well that works out is the repeated refusal of majorities to accept equal marriage rights for the gay minority.

Libertarians want to demonoplize the involuntary state and most of what they advocate applies to that scenario only. In the demonopolized social order we would have competing, diverse, voluntary communities which may, or may not, have rules which would be unacceptable in the involuntary community. In such a free social order a wide diversity of communal arrangements would arise and I hazard to guess that most of them will contain elements which libertarians find unacceptable in the involuntary community.

What this means is that libertarians who oppose specific policies in an involuntary community have no moral grounds to oppose them in a voluntary community. All this is true because the fundamental premise of libertarianism is consent. Individuals may consent to all sorts of things which individual libertarians might oppose. Consenting to taxation means that taxes in such a community are not theft much as consent turns rape into love making. The same act is morally different when consent is absent. And a libertarian world would have diverse communal structures where members consent to all sorts of voluntary restrictions on their liberty.