Lesson 4: Libertarianism

Libertarianism Traditionally those doing ethics began with principles and then dealt with exceptions. They might declare “no abortion” and then cite exceptions, such as rape, age, and danger to the health of the woman. We have problems today, such as governmental gridlock, when we believe acting on principle prohibits any exceptions.

Utilitarians and libertarians generally avoid this by regarding traditional principles as simply personal tastes or outmoded opinions. That enables them to call on the government to stay out of such moral debates in a democratic society. Libertarians believe the state should pretty much restrict itself to protecting the liberty of individuals in the their pursuit of happiness and settling the conflicts that might result.

That sounds good when politicians like Ron Paul describe how they are all about freedom. However, it seldom works that way in real life. When my wife’s second graders each brought a Christmas present for one other student, my wife also gave every student an eraser. One second grader left class that day with one Christmas gift and all the erasers. At first his wheeling and dealing might seem humorous, but in reality it was not about the honest trading of gifts with the eraser thrown in. It had more to do the power and coercion of the winner.

The approach becomes more problematic when so many of our transactions are not simple ones between two individuals selling a single product. The size and complexity of many modern transactions, such as bundling my mortgage and selling it to many different banks, often enables large institutions to use freedom as a tool for unfair practices.

Sandel uses a slightly different perspective when he argues that the polarization of wealth (1% of our population has 33% of wealth; the top 10% has 42% of all income and holds 71% of all wealth) questions the argument for freedom without regulation. You can not have a fair poker game with Bill Gates if there are no limits. You lose every time, because he simply has to “call” with more than you can cover. And you do not really have a free market when you are dealing with institutions too big to fail.

Other arguments can be made to show the limitations of this approach. Sandel asks if we want to get into selling human body parts or permitting consensual cannibalism. My face-to-face classes discussed responsibilities we owe the community as necessary complements to the rights we enjoy as individuals. I think libertarianism fails to control power, especially violent power, which is the bottom line in justice. Fairness must not only provide opportunity, but also regulate the misuse of power.

All this brings us to two critical questions in our society: If and when should our personal freedoms be curtailed for the sake of our common welfare; if and when should our individual rights be given up for our society’s security.

Next week we’ll examine a specific issue, the ethics involved in using a paid, voluntary army to fight our wars. Sandel discusses this in his chapter 4, “The Market and Morals.”

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1 Enlightened Reply

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    Libertarianism concentrates on the relation of the individual to the state. Certainly this is not the whole realm of ethical behavior. It is not a comprehensive theory.

    The Godfather of this philosophy is John Stuart Mill. Mill wrote at a time when the relationship between citizens and the state was much less complex than today. The range of state activity was much more circumscribed. Economic relationships were also less complex. This does not mean that the insights of Mill have no value today. It does mean however than simply to import Mill’s principles into modern society, without reconsidering them in light of the dimensions of that society, is not a wise decision.

    I doubt very much that it Mill rewrote On Liberty today that it would be the same book he wrote in the 19th century.

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