Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Pitfalls in Libertarian Argumentation

I sometimes like to read long comment threads on Reason Hit & Run or other ostensibly libertarian sites and analyze the arguments. I frequently see arguments fall into the same fruitless pattern, to wit:

1) There is a post about how the state overreaches in drug enforcement, sexual vices, public education or other matter.
2) Libertarians comment that the state should stay out of the matter.
3) Someone else comments that the drug in question is harmful, the vice is deplorable and hurtful, and the education is beneficial.
4) Someone else disputes #3.
5) Finally, if you are lucky, after about a hundred comments someone else will point out that libertarians do not necessarily dispute that the drug is harmful, the vice deplorable, or the education beneficial; rather, libertarians dispute that the appropriate solution is coercive state action.

It would be better if libertarians could get right to #5 and spend their energy debating the efficacy or morality of state action in the matter at issue. The non-libertarians with whom I speak almost always assume that my libertarianism means that I am pro-drug, pro-vice, and anti-education. The idea that the state is the solution to every perceived problem is not even regarded as problematic; rather, it is a given. Libertarians, if they want to address the arguments of non-libertarians, need to do a better job of framing the issues and problematizing the state.

Take the matter of crank, for example. I am not in favor of crank use, and I think it is appropriate to use moral persuasion and non-coercive means to discourage others from using crank. It is not appropriate, however, to use violence to prevent the production, trade or consumption of crank, and I view the societal costs associated with a program of violence and coercion as greatly outweighing any benefits. We have crank users in our midst, and that may be a problem. The solution is not to empower a gang of thugs to keep us all under surveillance, imprison people and otherwise terrorize us in the name of protecting us from the possibility that we might be foolish enough to ingest crank. That just means we have crank users and a gang of thugs in our midst, and we have compounded the problem manifold.

Take the matter of public education. I think education is a good thing, but I differ with many of my conspecifics on how this should be delivered and funded. I don't think that I should be able to force my neighbors to pay for the education of their own children, let alone the children of others. I believe that parents will find ways to educate their children and that poor children will benefit from private giving by people who care about their education. Moreover, I believe that this will result in better education than the current system founded on coercion and a near monopoly by the state. The argument should not be about whether education is desirable; rather, it should be about the best way to deliver it without theft or threats of violence.

Another line of argumentation is sometimes interjected into the above described debate. A self described libertarian will argue that libertarians should avoid commenting on drugs, vice, public education, etc. because this will turn non-libertarians off. The critic usually assumes that the libertarians are in favor of drug abuse, sexual license and ignorance. This criticism does nothing to advance the cause of libertarianism and plays into the notion that libertarians are selfish, licentious and anti-social nutcases. It would be better to jump into the comments and try to bring the discussion around to why the state is not the solution to the perceived problem at hand. Of course, a number of libertarians probably are selfish, licentious and anti-social nutcases, as they have every right to be, but their aims would likely be better served by hammering at the very idea of the state rather than defending drug abuse or cockfighting. Attacking the perceived problem leaves open the idea that the state is the solution. Hit the state first, then fall back on how the problem may not be as bad as perceived and can be handled non-coercively.

Disclaimer: I have never succeeded in converting anyone to libertarianism, but I have sown many seeds of doubt about the state.

1 comment:

saltypig said...

i have only converted one person to liberty quickly (she later went on to write at LRC). everybody else is continued hammering over years -- usually only with slight improvement, but also sometimes shocking moments of active lucidity from my "victims". it takes a very long time for the obvious to sink in when you're raised on the "red white and blue" ambient nonsense. almost wrote a post about the phenomenon yesterday. been trying to explain to the ignorant at wikipedia how it's illegal to compete with the USPS. spell it out in black and white, and they still don't get it even slightly. denial. there's "no way" USPS could be as bad as i describe it, apparently! ROFL

another great post, BTW.