Obama, libertarian paternalist

From Stephen Morris:

Well, I’m so glad we’ve all been told what “The standard libertarian view is”!!

Surely the expression “standard libertarian view” can only be used as an oxymoron. The great defect of this internally inconsistent philosophy is that any attempt to impose a standard is at odds with the philosophy itself.

To understand this, it is best to stand back and examine libertarianism from its roots:

If I am to be completely individualistic, then I must take complete responsibility for my own personal safety and defence. I must protect myself against the perils of the outside world, and I must be my own personal army, willing (and somehow able) to defend myself against all those other individuals who would kill me and steal my property. In practice this is observed to be not feasible.

(Anyone who wants to try is free to do so now. We will resume the argument when you return . . . . .

Having now established this fact, we may continue.)

Self-styled libertarians typically respond to this by declaring that certain limited forms of collective action are “legitimate”: typically defence, policing and sometimes other public goods such as the maintenance of sound currency. But herein lies a problem. Having accepted collective action in principle, how can one then arbitrarily limit it to certain so-called “legitimate” forms, and who decides which forms are “legitimate” and which are not.

For libertarians, collective security is a pact with the devil. Having deigned to accept the assistance of their community for security, on what basis can they then turn around and presume to dictate to their fellow citizens (the very people upon whom they have chosen to rely so absolutely) how that community is to be run? And it is an observable fact that some members of the community hold opinions which are not the least bit libertarian.

To take a topical example, was the recent intervention by the Federal Reserve in response to the sub-prime crisis (lowering the discount rate and expanding the types of collateral accepted by the Federal Reserve) a “legitimate” or an “illegitimate” intervention? Some self-styled libertarians would argue that it was clearly legitimate in order to maintain a sound banking system. Other self-styled libertarians would argue that the affected banks ought to have been allowed to go bankrupt as a necessary warning against sloppy lending practices in the future.

Would the “real” libertarians please stand up!!

One way of solving such “Where do you draw the line?” problems is to go to the extreme end of the spectrum (to adopt a boundary solution). But in the case of libertarianism, if we go to the most individualistic end of the spectrum, the concept collapses into a reductio ad absurdum. If we allow individuals complete freedom, then one aspect of “complete” freedom is the freedom to combine with other like-minded individuals to form a state. Such a state might even impose the will of those self-proclaimed “libertarians” on other individuals – perhaps to force them into understanding the blessed virtues of true libertarianism (as they see it)!

On the other hand, if we go to the other end of the spectrum . . . well . . . there is no other end of the spectrum.

So we cannot solve the “Where do you draw the line?” problem by adopting boundary solutions. All that is left of libertarianism is a set of personal opinions that vary from one self-styled libertarian to another.

There is no “standard libertarian view”.

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