Monday, 23 February 2009

The holy grail of pure freedom

In an interesting article in Libertarian Papers, Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics suggests that there are two kinds of libertarians - the Federalists and the Unionists.

Federalists envisage a society of freedom in which those who are not libertarian are given the freedom to organise themselves into unlibertarian communities and groups - on the grounds that if you do not give them such freedom, you are not being libertarian. The problem with this is that it means that there will be those within the Federation of Liberty who are not able to enjoy the freedom that the Federation is supposed to bring, so that “there could be a great deal of unfreedom in the Federation of Liberty.”

Unionists envisage a society of freedom in which those who are not libertarian are not given the freedom to organise themselves into unlibertarian communities and groups - on the grounds that in a truly libertarian society, libertarianism must be applied everywhere and to all. The problem with this is that it forces a conception of freedom on some people that they may not accept, and as such is coercive. “The Union of Liberty might in fact turn out, then, to be a union of not much liberty at all.”

The unhappy conclusion that Kukathas draws is that “neither interpretation of the libertarian first principle produces an outcome which seems particularly hospitable to liberty.” He then goes on to add, “Alas, as I see it, no other construction of libertarianism is possible. . . there is no third way, theoretically speaking. Libertarians must bite one bullet or the other.” In other words, they have to choose, and neither option will yield absolute freedom.

In other words, a society of true freedom is really an ephemeral will of the wisp which we can never achieve because we live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people.

At this point we move to the apostle Paul. In his letter to the church in Rome, he argues that everyone is imperfect - “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), and goes on to argue that as a result, no one is truly free. Everyone is either a slave of sin or a slave of obedience to God. In other words, you can serve an evil master or a good master, but you will inevitably serve something. (Romans 6:16 “Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to being accepted as righteous by God?”) Because we are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world, absolute freedom is unachievable, and we all, inevitably serve something. We have to choose what. Paul’s logic and conclusion is not dissimilar to that of Kukathas.

There is one difference between Paul and Kukathas. While both make their choice, for Paul the choice is pretty obvious. For Kukathas, the preferred option (Federalism) is taken somewhat reluctantly. And this is as it should be - Paul is a man who has met the risen Christ and who knows that Jesus Christ is absolutely good - in a way that nothing on earth is - and that to serve him is effectively true freedom. He has to be absolutist. Kukathas is dealing with life in an imperfect world, where even libertarian rulers (no, I don’t think that is a contradiction in terms!) are imperfect. He has to be pragmatic.

For myself, I think both of them are right. I agree with Paul, because I do believe that Jesus Christ is absolutely good. And like Kukathas I prefer Federalist libertarianism to Unionism, because Unionism tends toward the view that the state has the right to define what liberty is (or so it seems to me), and anything that smacks of “the state knows best” reminds me too much of what I see in Britain today.

8 comments:

Gandhi said...

Mr Bear, there's another form to consider here. Anarco-capitalists seem to prefer neither, but a situation where law is formed on the competitive market, that each individual agrees to be governed by particular laws; this would be more consistent with libertarian principle than the federal system, which would simply decentralise the imposition of laws to various groups (out from the centre). I go for the Unionist approach because I think law works best when it is subject to the most scrutiny (IE: by higher courts all the way up to consitutional/supreme court level); fewer laws would be sustainable in this way. In my view to say each-to-his-own on law in the anarco-capitalist mode is a kind of timid libertarianism which would be no more than a flash-in-a-pan as one-by-one the dominoes fall back to authoritarian madness (at least given current culture). Objectors in either Fed or Union would be trapped and have laws imposed upon them; the free individualist law approach would lead to violent chaos and right back to authoritarianism faster even than the Federal approach. Under the Union, flexiblity could be expected in sentencing (don't underestimate this!) and even in the extent of its application; alternatively the Federal system could be strengthened by a central legal standard (EG: US Constitution) which would regulate the kind of laws which each area could impose (limit the potential for craziness). In practice, differential laws ('States Rights' as they're called) cause much friction and bureaucracy.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Hello Mr Gandhi.

Even most Federalists, I suspect, acknowledge some need for laws from the centre, and a need for a central constitution and constitutional court. Maybe we are not so far apart.

I am, however, a firm believer in states' rights. As the great and good Dr Ron Paul says, "Most of the worst excesses of big government can be traced to a disregard for states’ rights"

indigomyth said...

Hello YMB, as promised a longer sequence of thoughts.

In theory, federalism is the best way forward - to allow people to create unLibertarian cells within the libertarian framework. However, that only truly works if you have free movement - if you allow people to leave the cell, and move to another with greater individual liberty if they so wish. However, when there are restrictions on the movement of people, you get problems. A Just federalism can only work within a meta-Libertarian society.

There is also the consideration to be made about the primacy of private property. It is certainly the case that private property DEMANDS federalism - for I have not the right to stand in your house and say whatever I want freely, and to not be ejected by you. In the same way I do not have the right to come on to your blog and use gross profanity - it is your space, owned by you, and you have the right to dictate what can and cannot be done here.

However, when we get into the situation of what can be done on someone else's private property, or what can be done on "public" property, we have a different situation. In the former case, the owner of that property has absolute authority, in the latter case, the issues are muddied due to uncertainty over ownership.

One of my favourite Libertarian writers, Murray N. Rothbard (from whom, incidentally, I get the belief that parents ought to be able to abandon their children, or allow them to starve to death), believed that abortion was a fundamental right, yet also objected to Roe V Wade, because he saw the empowerment of a larger state to not be preferable to a smaller state, even if the smaller state is acting in an authoritarian manner.

The problem with the notion of "state's rights" is that it degrades the entire notion of private property - what value is a property right, if a state has the right to intrude and violate your land. A similar conflict of interests came up recently over the minaret ban in Switzerland.

indigomyth said...

A further thought:

//The problem with this is that it forces a conception of freedom on some people that they may not accept, and as such is coercive. //

Is it any more unreasonable to force people to respect other people's rights of liberty, then it is to punish them for enslaving, murdering, or stealing from, others.

It may be someone's belief that it is correct to enslave people, are we to respect that? It may be someone's belief that it is correct to murder, are we to respect that?

I cannot see libertarianism as compatible with NOT punishing those that violate others rights, within a non-private ownership sphere (or in violating the property of the innocent party).

indigomyth said...

Sorry YMB, on the reading of the article you cite, I would have to say that I am a Unionist - for as it says"

//It ought to be noted at the outset that it may not mean that no non-libertarian communities or associations will exist in such a society. A crucial dimension to the rights libertarianism describes is the freedom of persons to waive their rights—or at least, some of their rights.3 Some persons might therefore agree with one another to form associations in which they live, voluntarily, by non-libertarian principles. They might agree to hold their property in common and limit private ownership; and they might place restrictions on speech, or require all to abide by strict rules limiting what each may do and authorising some to hold considerable power the others. What is different about the Union of Liberty, however, is that, unlike the Federation of Liberty, no one is permitted to live ithout liberty unless he has explicitly relinquished those particular liberties he lacks.//

I was taking this aspect to be covered in the notion of "federalism", however, since it is being considered as part of "Unionism", I would have to consider myself a Unionist.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Hello, indigomyth, and thanks for those comments, which I basically agree with. I had a feeling that you were probably more 'unionist' than me, but, as I said to Gandhi, Even most Federalists, I suspect, acknowledge some need for laws from the centre, and a need for a central constitution and constitutional court.


I'm not sure that "states' rights" does necessarily degrade property rights. But clearly "states' rights" have to be limited. Anyway, I'm glad to know that Murray Rothbard believed in states' rights, too.


By the way, sorry to put you through the moderation process, but I find that if I don't use moderation for older posts, I get a huge amount of rubbish dumped on my property.

indigomyth said...

Thanks for putting me onto that essay, and for the website in fact. There are some interesting things on there. I have read the abstract on one or two, and they look stimulating. Some about the link between Christianity and the justice of a minarchist libertarian society. There is also a new essay up against abortion, which I think you would be interested in.

//Anyway, I'm glad to know that Murray Rothbard believed in states' rights, too.//

He didn't really believe in state's rights. I think he was probably more anarcho-capitalist than libertarian. He believed in freedom from aggressive violence, but he saw outsourcing to ever higher levels of government was immoral, as though the smaller government had no right to restrict the liberty of the people living under it, the larger government did not have the jurisdiction over the small one.

//By the way, sorry to put you through the moderation process, but I find that if I don't use moderation for older posts, I get a huge amount of rubbish dumped on my property.//

I was starting to think that it was some sort of error with my computer at this end - perhaps a change in the sending of ID, or some such.

Young Mr. Brown said...

There are some interesting things on there. I have read the abstract on one or two, and they look stimulating. Some about the link between Christianity and the justice of a minarchist libertarian society. There is also a new essay up against abortion, which I think you would be interested in.

Too much to read, too much to read. And all so interesting looking as well.

Oh dear. What am I to do?

:-)

Anyway, thanks for that. I might just find some spare moments.