A recent book by the libertarian economist Walter Block called Defending the Undefendable (which I have just started), in which he passionately defends the work of society's outliers -- such as drug dealers and prostitutes -- as "heroic", has sparked some thoughts about libertarianism.
Years ago, when he worked at the Fraser Institute, I read quite a bit of Walter Block's excellent libertarian material. It is always a bracing corrective to socialistic economic thinking, in particular.
In fact, I got my start in political thinking after immersing myself in various libertarian materials. I still defend this philosophy for a lot of economic matters (though a lot of libertarian ideas, such as that nations would be better to have only private police forces and armies, etc., still seem pretty wacko).
But increasingly, I now think of libertarianism as "the simple faith" and a casebook example of what has happened to philosophy in the Western world since the so-called "Age of Reason" -- from the 17th century 'til today.
What has happened? Well, to put it plainly, all branches of philosophy (political, economic, moral, etc.) have abandoned the really complex approaches to solving human problems and moral dilemmas and have tended to settle on "rule-based" forms of thought.
In moral philosophy, this has been a disaster for the Western world, for reasons I try to explain in most of my own work.
To clarify: in ancient times, serious thinkers appealed to, and attempted to balance a whole range of oft-conflicting human truths and experiences before making their judgements. They deeply pondered actual daily experience and human habits; they reflected on the universality of human nature; they called upon the formative and grounding myths of their culture, on their deepest theological beliefs, on historical precedent, on the force of custom, tradition and the common moral understandings of their particular communities, and so on.
But since the Age of Reason -- especially since the influence of Descartes and his followers in philosophy and science -- much of this has been pushed aside in a narrow search for a "rule" of behaviour or of thought that moderns seek to rely on in all cases to guide their actions. What are some examples?
Thomas Hobbes made a rule of force: Leviathan (the monarch or dictator) would be the source of all law (dismissing the complexities of common law, natural law, and so on) - and this led to the later philosophy of the Superman in Nietzsche and thence to the Nazi and Fascist ideologies.
Jeremy Bentham, a "Utilitarian" thinker, was so incapable of forming deeply complex judgements that he invented a sort of mathematical rule of "the greatest good of the greatest number". He actually wrote out complex math formulas to defend his moral ideas as "a felicific calculus" (a happiness formula) as if the math of the head-count would always point us to the best moral conclusion.
But perhaps the most damaging of these rule-oriented philosophers was John Stuart Mill. He was an intellectual prodigy, and also a prodigy of simple-mindedness in moral matters. His rule for moral behaviour of human beings was the rule of the harm principle.This was and is still the idea that you can do whatever you want as long as you do not harm someone else. In fact, he consorted with Mrs. Harriet Taylor -- a sick man's wife -- for many years before the poor fellow died, and he married her. To salve his conscience he justified this (in his Autobiography) on the grounds that because the husband was not aware of very much, no harm was done. I think his public moral philosophy grew out of this need to justify his personal behaviour -- a pretty slippery basis for a moral philosophy.
In my view, Mill's is the most deforming of all possible moral rules, and it is steadily undermining the Western world by blinding us to the reality of the indirect harm we all may do at any time to the moral fabric of .. our own selves, to our families, our communities, and our nations. Just one example will do: I doubt anyone would ever say that a soldier sent to defend us who runs from the enemy, though without having directly harmed anyone, has thereby abided by the harm principle, and so is morally unimpeachable. Rather, I would say he has endangered and shamed the whole country.
Block is a Millian libertarian thinker, and while strong as an economic libertarian, he displays all the weaknesses of that form of thinking when it comes to morality. Here is an example from his book:
"...heroically proceeding to confer their economic services
in the teeth of universal scorn and outlawry. They are heroes
indeed, made so by their unjust treatment at the hands of soci-
ety and of the state apparatus."
Just a brief comment on that quote, which is the basis for his entire book: Does anyone really believe that we can define a prostitute or a drug dealer -- someone who makes money from actions that society and the law have always declared to be sleazy and immoral -- as "a hero"? What could it possibly mean simply to declare that all those deemed by millenia of thinking human beings to be engaging in reprehensible behaviours, are in fact "heroes"? Does simply saying you think they are heroes, make them so? And further -- why does "conferring an economic value" make anyone a hero, anyway? There are clearly beneficial as well as malevolent economic actions, any of which may be a "value" (more cash in hand) to someone. But I doubt anyone would say that selling young girls on the sex-slave market, say (my example, not Block's), which some people certainly see as "a value", should be accepted as a good thing just because some people benefit economically from it.
Here's another example of the moral corruption to which libertarianism is prone.
Most, but not all libertarians (Ron Paul was an exception) defend things like abortion on demand in the name of liberty and choice, supported by their belief that an abortion does not harm anyone (and because a woman, they declare, ought to have "sovereignty" over her own body). I disagree.
As a matter of liberty, abortion can only be defended by turning unborn children (whose sovereignty over their own bodies ought to be defended as much as their mothers') into a philosophical and legal womb-slave, or non-person, before killing them. For only then -- once the unborn child has been legally converted into an object -- can one say there is no harm done. I think libertarians would be more honest if they simply said, "We are stronger and more free than unborn children. So we support killing them for any reason."
At any rate, there are many ways that philosophy and the search for truth become what David Hume called "false philosophy" -- philosophy that reduces complex matters to an overly-simple rule of conduct, and then sets out with an air of superiority to judge as ignorant all those who do not agree with the simple rule.
In these ways, a too-narrow philosophical position, or rule -- there are many attempted today -- is made to serve the beliefs of the thinker.
But that is not philosophy. It is propaganda in support of personal Will.