Sunday, August 7, 2016

Freedom and Libertarianism

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for president, made waves in libertarian circles this week by taking some positions contrary to the usual libertarian orthodoxy:
Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, in an interview with Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, calls religious freedom “a black hole” and endorses a federal role in preventing “discrimination” in all its guises. More specifically, he’s okay with fining a wedding photographer for not working a gay wedding – a case from New Mexico where Cato and every libertarian I know supported the photographer – and forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraceptives (where again Cato and libertarians supported religious liberty).
But as John Holbo explains, this is a case where libertarian doctrine and actual liberty may be on opposite sides:
I can’t say that Johnson’s ‘black hole’ metaphor was entirely clear, but it ought to be clear what he is worried about. If I can refuse to serve a gay person, on religious grounds, why not a Jew, a Catholic, an African-American? To adapt Sinclair: it’s hard to get a man NOT to believe something sincerely, on religious grounds, if believing it, sincerely, on religious grounds, will permit him to push around his neighbor, whom he dislikes, with legal impunity he would not otherwise enjoy. Does anyone doubt that the Bob Jones folks sincerely believed the Bible supported them? . . .

The thought-experiment is easy and obvious: suppose a crushing form of Jim Crow were maintained, not by the government, but by a powerful, coordinated coalition of private actors who, for good measure, sincerely believe their religion demands no less of them? Would that be acceptable? Would this be ‘freedom’, technically, not just for those maintaining the system but also for those kept down by it? If so, is it obvious we should care about maximizing ‘freedom’ – rather than something more, you know, free.
Many libertarians don't like to admit it, but sometimes governments act to increase freedom. When the Federal army crushed the Confederacy and put an end to slavery in North America, that led to a great increase in human liberty.

If you are serious about freedom, you can't just focus on restraining the actions of governments. As things are right now, governments make a great many of the rules and limit our freedom quite a lot. But if we didn't have governments, we might not find ourselves more free; instead we might find that giant corporations, neighborhood associations and so on stepped into the breech with even more burdensome rules.

Johnson may or may not be right in his choices; I agree with him, but then I am not especially obsessed with liberty. But he is absolutely right that if the goal is to maximize freedom, minimizing government alone with not get us there.


G. Verloren said...

The trick is that freedoms are often mutually exclusive.

If you want the freedom to, say, dispose of industrial waste however you please, such as just dumping it in the local river, that necessarily infinges on other people's freedoms, such as living in a world where pollution doesn't hurt or kill them or the environment they live in.

Thus, we're forced to decide between which freedoms we value more. Do we value the time, money, and effort of a business more than we value the health and happiness of the common citizen? In most cases, no we don't - and that's why we put regulations in place, to protect people from harmful behaviors which unchecked capitalist enterprise would otherwise incentivize.

I've never understood the mindset of Libertarians being so anti-regulation and aggresively against government controls and restrictions. Are they somehow ignorant of history, and of the countless examples of destructive, exploitative behavior carried out in the name of profit when there wasn't a system in place to prevent such behavior? Have they never heard of The Gilded Age, or of Robber Barons, or of organized crime, or of conmen, charlatains, quacks, and profiteers? Are they really so naive as to think a world of minimal government intereference wouldn't necessarily be one of maximal private exploitation?

Shadow said...

I would ditch the word freedom. This is about the tyranny of the majority and what limits we are willing to place on it. A democracy without checks. but with a clear, like-thinking majority is as susceptible to tyranny as any autocracy. Isn't the structure of our democracy built upon the premise that limits must be placed on the majority? The irony is the only way for all to enjoy liberty is to place limits on it.

The problem -- where all this starts to become unclear (for me) -- is local border skirmishes, where deeply held but opposing values come into contact and conflict with one another -- say, for example, a family owned bakery and an LGBT activist. Seems to me a company that owns a chain of bakeries and trades on the NYSE is a very different thing than a family owned, single bakery lodged between the hardware store and the barber shop. Should the same rules apply to both? Is it wise to do so?

The FHA (Fair Housing Act) seems to recognize this distinction:

As written, the FHA covers most — but not all — housing. Some exemptions to coverage under the FHA include: (a) owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units (which is commonly known as the Mrs. Murphy exemption); (b) single family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker if the private individual owner does not own more than three such single family homes at one time; or (c) housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.

I keep going back and forth. On the one hand, I think the whole thing is ridiculous. (I'm not LGBT.) How often will someone ask a baker to bake a wedding cake when they know the baker hates their very existence. There are ways the baker can get out of doing it, and if he can't, additional ways to ruin the memory of the wedding by baking a lousy tasting cake. On the other hand, if you live in a small town with a single bakery in, say, Wyoming, where the next town is more than 60 miles away, this very much matters. So I'm on the side of LGBTs. But is there an FHA way of handling this, and if there is, should we?

Shadow said...

"I've never understood the mindset of Libertarians being so anti-regulation and aggresively against government controls and restrictions. "

That kind of thinking might come from Hayek, Vienna, fascism (and communism). The thinking goes that such regulations, while well-intended and often effective, lead down the road to totalitarianism (serfdom). I think this has been proved wrong. Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with that.