Against Fake Libertarian Clarity

This exchange reminds me that many (maybe most) self-styled libertarians think that libertarianism is, by definition, a philosophy that conceives of liberty as a lack of coercion, and, additionally, that coercion is something easy to understand. For these libertarians, just as one might decide to take up an interest in the plight of foreign war orphans, one might decide to be troubled by the fact that some people’s lives are stunted or ruined by arbitrary yet systemic social exclusion, or by having the development of their interests and talents constantly discouraged and their aspirations and confidence constantly undermined. But, they say, these elective worries cannot flow from an interest in liberty, because liberty is about not being threatened with involuntary confinement in a small room, while these things are about being threatened with involuntary confinement in a small life.

These libertarians are usually guilty of defining “coercion” ideologically, and then acting as though the word has always meant what they use it to mean. But it is abuse of language to deny that many emotional or social threats are coercive–that they can strip a person of her liberty by raising the price of its free exercise beyond what she should be made to pay. You can choose to welcome the knifepoint. But we agree that this is too much to ask, so we agree that going along at knifepoint doesn’t count as an exercise of freedom–as something for which you bear responsibility. There are many other things that are too much to ask.

These libertarians are also notoriously guilty of pretending that their favorite kinds of coercion aren’t. Threatening force to deny another person use of one’s land, or one’s house, is coercion. A system of private property is a system of coercion. It may be justified coercion. It is justified coercion. But then the question is: What justifies it? The coercive protection of property is justified because people do better with it than without it. If people do better in a system that defines rights to property a bit less strictly, and coercively guarantees an economic minimum, then that is justified coercion. It’s not really a philosophical question whether it is or not. Justified coercion, like the coercion in the protection of property, isn’t wrongfully liberty-limiting, but it does limit liberty. 

If libertarianism is the view that coercion is never social or emotional, and that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian. If libertarianism is the view that human well-being is best promoted by ensuring “that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man,” then I am a libertarian. If this is a libertarian view, then the goal to minimize or abolish wrongfully liberty-limiting social norms is a libertarian goal.

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