Review of Libertarian Quandaries

libertarian_quandriesJakub Wisniewski’s book Libertarian Quandries is a thoughtful and accurate account of the libertarian ethical system. Though the language is a bit academic at times, the chapters are short and pithy. This makes the book an excellent choice for those who are familiar with libertarianism and want to take their understanding and arguments to the next level.

Wisniewski addresses a wide range of objections to libertarianism, be they economic, ethical, or simply a question of what is practical. Similarly, he mounts a calm but relentless attack on arguments in favor of government. Ancaps will appreciate his consistent anarchist message, while libertarians who are still holding on the idea of limited government will find some interesting food for thought.

That said, there are a few things that call for clarification:

Libertarianism is the social philosophy that identifies individual liberty as the most fundamental social value and, by extension, treats voluntary cooperation as the only morally permissible form of social interaction.

This is vaguely correct, but does not really convey the definition of libertarianism in a clear and concise way. That is not a problem if you are trying to give someone the flavor of libertarianism to pique their interest, but when doing serious analysis of the system it is important to have strictly correct definitions to work with. Otherwise analysis can go astray:

Does libertarianism say that it is immoral and criminal to use coercion against peaceful individuals in so-called “lifeboat situations” (e.g., unless I threaten you with a gun, thereby coercing you to row a boat, we will all drown)? Yes, it does. But does it say that it is not moral to try to save people’s lives in lifeboat situations by coercing them to do certain things? No, it does not. In effect, what it does say is that while it is always immoral and criminal to use coercion against peaceful individuals, it is likely that in most cases reputable private arbitrators would treat being in a lifeboat situation as an extenuating circumstance sufficient to pardon the coercers, provided that, in hindsight, the coerced agree that the consequences brought about by the act of coercion were positive.

While libertarianism does allow for behaviors that overtly seem like aggression, here Wisniewski has skipped the theoretical justification and made a hand-wavy surrender to consequentialism. Were this a single miss-step, it might not have been worth mentioning, but he later takes this idea further and undermines the definition of libertarianism itself:

Putting the issue in slightly different terms, the libertarian ethic does not say that aggression is never justified, but that it is always criminal. Note that these are very different things. One might feel justified in committing a prima facie criminal act in the belief that he will be subsequently pardoned or even thanked by his victim (think, of, e.g., forcibly preventing a temporarily depressed would-be suicide from carrying through on his plans). And note that this is something very different from allowing for the existence of a monopolistic apparatus of aggression (i.e., the state) that removes itself from the ambit of universally applicable morality by claiming that its acts of aggression are not criminal-though-pardonable, but possibly non-criminal.

What is the right way to think about situations where a “victim” might thank you afterwards? An analogy might help. If you push your neighbor over, they might get mad at you. How dare you violate the non-aggression principle? If you then explain that you were pushing them out of the way of an arrow that would have killed them, then they will thank you. However, it is not the case that you committed aggression and are being forgiven. You never violated the NAP in the first place. Your neighbor wanted to stay alive more than they wanted to stay standing, and your push was compatible with that, even if they did not realize it at the time.

Later, there was another not-quite-right assertion in the book:

…libertarianism is a social philosophy, not a marketing proposal or a party platform. In sum, while libertarianism does not claim that liberty is the only value that matters, it does claim that liberty is the value that matters the most. And while it does not claim that everyone must want to be free, it does claim that everyone must refrain from making others unfree.

Libertarianism does not state that liberty matters the most. A libertarian is free to choose to live in a city with lots of capital and little liberty or in a rural area with little capital and lots of liberty. Similarly, it does not prohibit libertarians from making others unfree, especially criminals. The point here is not to be pedantic — the spirit of what Wisniewski says is in-line with libertarianism. But if your book is about libertarianism, you need to be careful about sweeping statements about its fundamental nature.

Also, while the book is generally quite positive on the prospects for liberty, the following seemed a little too pessimistic:

…trying to establish “genuine free-market libertarianism” is as little and as much as trying to accomplish the admittedly hard task of persuading the majority of people to become significantly more economically literate and morally aware than they currently are.

Everyone adopted cell phones without knowing a thing about electrical engineering. So too will people fall in line without question when paying for police services is like paying for Netflix and getting court services is like hiring an Uber. Whatever transition away from statism is finally found, it won’t be with a majority of people becoming economically or morally aware. It will be people seeing an opportunity to improve their own life and taking that chance. People do this every day when they find a way to avoid taxes or regulations. Once enough cracks form in the government system, the flood of lemmings pouring through will trample it to ashes.

Now, even though there were a few things to take issue with, the amount of excellent analysis in Libertarian Quandries more than makes up for them. For example, Wisniewski gives a very clear analysis of how government welfare pales in comparison to charity within a libertarian society. Also, in Chapter 7, Wisniewski takes on the idea that government would be an ideal system if bureaucrats were omniscient and omnibenevolent. In a clever analysis, he points out that under such assumptions, the free market is still superior, both ethically and economically. Finally, he gives some reasons to be hopeful for a libertarian future and gives a great analogy of all human progress being the replacement of power with liberty.

A solid defense of the state-of-the-art in libertarianism, a.k.a. anarcho-capitalism. Five Murrays.

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