libertarianism and socialization: replies

(Written in Macon, GA): It’s amazing how a comment about libertarianism draws more attention than almost anything else in the “blogosphere.” In a post from last week, I argued that libertarians ought to be concerned about how parents and communities raise their kids, because most people are not raised to value individual liberties as highly as libertarians would want. I also expressed some openness to pragmatic libertarianism while rejecting a pure philosophical form of the ideology. This post provoked comments on my site, in my email inbox, and on the Crooked Timber site, thanks to a nice mention by Kieran Healy. I’d like to respond to several of these comments together:

1. I predicted that people who grow up in communities that bar public displays of political opinion will lack respect for the First Amendment. How do I know this?

I don’t. In theory, raising kids in speech-free zones could provoke a reaction: the next generation could passionately embrace political debate. It’s always hard to predict the effects of social arrangements on political beliefs. This is one good reason not to use state power to manipulate private choices. (The other reason is liberty itself.)

However, it seems at least plausible that the next generation will lack respect for free speech if we raise many of them in affluent and well-ordered communities that deliberately banish signs, leaflets, and canvassers. If I were a libertarian, I would worry enough about this that I would want to collect data on the attitudes of young residents of homeowners’ associations. I might also launch a rhetorical campaign to support libertarian associations–those that choose to allow (or even to encourage) public displays of free speech.

More generally, adults’ political attitudes and behaviors are heavily influenced by their parents’ political views and actions. Of course, there are exceptions: people who renounce the party or ideology of their parents. Libertarians are often examples, since libertarianism is a rather contrarian philosophy. However, the statistics are clear: parents’ beliefs correlate very strongly with children’s beliefs. We don’t choose our parents, yet their beliefs tend to influence our choices for the rest of our lives. This is a conundrum that ought to provoke more thinking in libertarian circles.

2. How important is a ban on political signs and canvassers? After all, neither form of political “speech” is common anywhere. Maybe in walled communities, campaign signs are banned, but everyone is inside checking out political websites. Then the ban would do no harm.

This is a good point and a source of some consolation. Nevertheless, I worry that an explicit and deliberate ban on a certain kind of speech sends the message that such speech is socially undesirable. Why shouldn’t people be able to put up small signs with political messages? Why does banning such signs seem to increase property values?

3. “Bill” points out that if we are pragmatic libertarians (who embrace markets only when they work better than governments), we need a method for deciding when to embrace market solutions. One method is exactly what I favor: “have a big public argument and then let politicians decide (subject to any discipline voters place on them by voting them out).” Bill adds: “This … has problems. Politicians often do not have proper incentives to decide the right way even for the x for which there is a big public argument. …”

I agree that politicians have incentives to make the wrong decisions, and a “big public argument” can turn out badly. (Among other things, it can turn into majority tyranny.) However, it seems clear to me that markets work for some things and not for others. They don’t provide national defense, finance universal education, protect the ozone layer, etc. I don’t believe that any existing social theory can tell us when they work and when they don’t, because success is a normative matter, not a scientific one. Therefore, we must have a “big public argument” followed by a decision by our elected representatives. This is a flawed process and not one that can be perfected; but it can be improved. We have an array of safeguards to employ, starting with the Madisonian toolkit (checks and balances, a free press) and moving to more radical ideas (decentralization and subsidiarity, citizens’ deliberations).

4. I said, “I believe that human beings may make claims on others for economic support; that some of these claims are morally obligatory…” Craig asks, “I for one would like to hear(see) those claims made; offhand I can’t think of any that I’d be persuaded by, excepting familial claims.”

I think most Americans would agree with me that when we are born, helpless and ignorant, we deserve at least an affordable education through the 12th grade, protection against abuse by our own parents, shelter and nutrition, protection against crime and foreign invasion, and basic health care. If we have rights to these things, then someone has a correlative duty to pay for them. Parents certainly have the primary duty, but many cannot afford education, housing, and health care for their children. Some might say that it is wrong for them to have children, but it happens, and it’s not the kids’ fault.

Why should citizens of a person’s nation pay the difference between what his parents can afford and what he needs? Why doesn’t the obligation apply to all citizens of the world, or only to the local neighborhood? There is no a priori argument that nation-states ought to provide safety nets, but we do have some positive experience with states that do so. By far the highest standards of living ever attained in human history exist in democratic states that guarantee a package of social services: the United States and its allies in North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. It would take a very strong argument in favor of a different political unit before I’d want to reject the social contract that has made Norway, Australia, Japan, the US, and similar countries such extraordinarily good places to live.

One thought on “libertarianism and socialization: replies

  1. Hellmut Lotz

    I suggest a slightly different definition of pragmatic libertarians. Pragmatic libertarians consider governmental action if markets fail.

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