I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”
That is how Peter Thiel open’s his essay at Cato Unbound. The month’s conversation is devoted to seasteading, but I’m more interested in identifying what arguments convinced me that libertarianism was insufficient.
First, I suppose any critique of libertarianism begins with saying that my account of autonomy differs from the individualistic perspective, what I suppose Thiel means by ‘authentic human freedom’. Libertarians present and atomistic account of freedom (yes, de rigeur in critiques of libertarianism). I prefer to view people (on more soft communitarian lines) as located in a social context and that’s significant – at the very least this social context should take it into account far more than libertarians do. In other words, I see many more public goods than libertarians seem to. For instance, I wonder if there are any libertarian epidemiologists? It would seem that in many circumstances where the weakest link in the chain has cascading consequences for the rest of the community, libertarianism will not suffice. So in addition to swine flu, there are a host of pathogens which take advantages of vulnerabilities in public health. Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis spread in overcrowded Russian prisons is one example. Furthermore, even if I could successfully reconcile libertarianism with the consequences-cascading-from-weak-links point, I tend to press further for the infrastructure to successfully carry out the tasks. Health surveillance by the CDC and WHO for example. Another example, redistributive mechanisms to channel assistance to the most vulnerable (e.g. the UN system, the World Bank Group, EU, OAS, and the alphabet soup of other international organizations).
Also, I tend to agree with the feminist authors who argued ‘the personal is political.’ Because the private is constructed in public, many areas of ‘private’ life are identified, defined, and enforced by the public. For instance, we have a rule that married couples can’t be forced to testify against one another. It’s a rule that public institutions made up to recognize marriage as a special place, where things said to partners are accorded this special status. ‘We’, the public made up this rule about the supposedly ‘private’ institution of marriage. So the contours of what is private are defined in public – we make up what is private, we define what’s private, and we say when the rules of privacy can be broken. The whole, ‘well take it out of the public domain thing’ is impossible, living in communities means living your private life in public.
I understand libertarian’s concern for negative rights, but like the anemic account of the individual, libertarian’s accounts of rights leave much out. To me ‘authentic human freedom’ is really about the preservation and promotion of human dignity – negative accounts of rights are insufficient for this important social task. I freely admit, this next line of argument becomes slightly circular, but it’s a circularity I can live with. I believe we have rights because we are human beings, and human beings have/need human dignity (once again, this might be tautological, especially since there’s no God in this perspective to back all of this up, saying do this because God says so) So that’s my (first?) unyielding assumptions that I can’t prove, but I just take as givens: human beings have human dignity and that human dignity ought to be respected. Rights are about enforcing, claiming, and manifesting that human dignity. It is not out of generosity that we have rights. We’re owed certain things by virtue of being human. It is precisely because there’re all sorts of people who do what we dislike, and perhaps all sorts of people that we dislike too, that rights are important. There’s a kind of reciprocal aspect – at some point you’ll be the target of someone who says, “Hey, why do we give that person over there XYZ rights?” Unless you’re a well-to-do white heterosexual male practicing the dominant religion where you live, you probably haven’t had it so good in Western history and you probably don’t have it so good (equal opportunity, etc.) today. Positive rights are a way of shoring you up against potential attack, they are a sort of (feeble, inadequate, incomplete?) attempt at preserving your individuality and autonomy against the power of the masses, society, mob and the market. (There’s definitely some Rawls, Theory of Justice, and Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, and a dose of Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New, mixed in there.)
This is a kind of absolutist, unyielding vision of human rights. I have human rights by virtue of being human. I don’t have to earn them. I don’t have to work for them. And I don’t necessarily have responsibilities connected with human rights – or whether or not I meet certain responsibilities (often thresholds of good behavior), I still have human rights. In fact I can be a terrible person, and still I have human rights. I could be a criminal, or a terrorist, or a rapist, and still have certain human rights. Just because I am suspected of doing dreadful things in Afghanistan doesn’t mean the US government can torture me and send me to Guantanamo for the rest of my life – but I digress. I think for an American audience, one of the very few positive rights that obtains is in the Miranda warning.
You have the right to an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
Americans have the right to an attorney – not healthcare though.
Atomistic individuals, the personal is political, positive rights (aka second and third generation rights) are fairly important things. Three points and I’ve yet to get to the veil or privilege. Next post.