2014-09-04

Libertarianism Qua Ethical Virtue?

Via Facebook, Open Borders fellow-blogger Paul Crider suggests a resolution to my libertarianism conundrum. His simple-yet-elegant solution: Maybe libertarianism isn't a political or moral system so much as it is an ethical virtue.

This suggestion is immediately attractive on intuitive grounds. That a preference for liberty could be thought of in the same way as a preference for honesty, temperance, justice, etc. just "feels right." It also adds some good potential clarity around the phenomenon of libertarian bigots: They're interested in promoting a legal structure that enables them to discriminate however they see fit. That is, it's in their interest to promote a libertarian virtue ethic among others, so long as they themselves don't have to play.

From that perspective, it almost becomes a question of game theory. If we all agree to abide by libertarian virtue, then the first one who "cheats" on the agreement wins big. Other "cheaters" quickly follow-suit, but gather progressively diminishing returns until no one is playing by the rules anymore. But of course, the first "cheater" always wins.

As you can see, Crider's suggestion also offers insight into why I think failing to abide by a true libertarian virtue ethic undermines liberty in society. If he's correct - and my game theory add-on makes any kind of rational sense - then we have at least a rough theory as to why bigotry is incompatible with liberty. Best of all, it follows a pattern consistent with other virtues. "Cheating" in a world of honesty eventually undermines trustworthiness in a community. "Cheating" in a world of justice eventually erodes faith in the justice system itself. "Cheating" in a world of peace results in war. And so on.

Are there weaknesses in this way of looking at it? Certainly.

For one thing, it doesn't seem fair to take any idea that you happen to agree with and tout it as an ethical virtue that everyone should agree with. Surely a basic preference for liberty is common to all human beings regardless of their political stripes; it wouldn't be right to suggest that the non-libertarians are falling short of good ethics just because they disagree with libertarian policy. Why couldn't, say, a religious conservative simply declare faith in god to be an ethical virtue (as many often do) and decry any non-believer as unethical on that grounds. No, that doesn't jive. Sometimes people simply believe different things.

Another weakness is this: Crider's view of the libertarian virtue is that it might otherwise be called "openness, tolerance, liberality, or inclusiveness," which sounds a lot like the psychological concept of "openness to experience." While this seems okay prima facie, associating a virtue with a psychological trait seems prone to excluding those who do not show the trait when measured by psychologists. Think of it this way: Would it be fair to call leftism a type of neuroticism? Of course not. So, how could it be fair to call libertarianism a type of openness to experience?

That said, I doubt Crider intended his suggestion to be air-tight. Like any other paradigm, its value is mostly educational. By looking at things this way, we might gain some insight into what it is we're talking about. Simply thinking about this concept has offered a compelling window into how another person sees libertarianism, which is valuable and interesting in its own right. On top of that, it's helped me get closer to the idea that this whole "freedom thing" is as much a social or ethical concept as it is a political one.

But I suppose I've waxed enough about this for a while.