A Libertarian on Nongovernmental Forms of Coercion

The Economist’s W.W. has some insightful commentary on how his views have changed from his libertarian youth:

When I was a Rand-toting libertarian lad, I believed, as I believe now, that racism of any stripe is a disgusting form of collectivism. Where my opinion has changed is that I used to think that if negative rights to non-interference were strictly observed, liberty was guaranteed, but I don’t now. Here’s how I had thought about the matter. One racist acting in a private capacity on his or her racist beliefs can’t violate anyone’s legitimate, negative rights. (No one is entitled to another’s good opinion!) Two racists acting as private citizens on their racist beliefs can’t violate anyone’s rights. Therefore, I inferred, thousands or millions of racists acting non-coercively on their racist beliefs can’t coercively violate anyone’s rights. I now think this is quite wrongheaded.

Eventually I realised that actions that are individually non-coercive can add up to stable patterns of behaviour that are systematically or structurally coercive, depriving some individuals of their rightful liberty. In fact, rights-violating structures or patterns of behaviour are excellent examples of Hayekian spontaneous orders—of phenomena that are the product of human action, but not of human design. This shift has led me to see racism and sexism themselves as threats to liberty. Racism and sexism have come to matter more to me in that I have come to see them in terms of the political value that matters most to me: liberty. And so I have become much more sympathetic to policies that would limit individual liberty in order to suppress patterns or norms of behaviour that might pose an even greater threat to freedom. So I’ve become fairly friendly toward federal anti-discrimination law, affirmative action, Title 9, the works. I have found that this sympathy, together with my belief in the theoretical possibility and historical reality of structural coercion, releases me almost entirely from the liberal suspicion that I’m soft on racism (even if I do wish to voucherise Medicare). Phew!

I think W.W. gets straight to the heart of a fundamental libertarian flaw. Freedom/liberty from government intrusion is not the only form of freedom/liberty that matters. It certainly is a form of liberty that matters, but it’s not the only one. Social and economic power can also destroy individual liberty. This is a large part of the reason that I generally side with Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument for balancing power as much as possible. If economic, government, and social power can all check each other there is less danger of any one source of power being oppressive. In addition to balancing power on a macro level it is, of course, also advisable to balance it within government by having various branches and levels.

W.W.‘s reflections on libertarianism are part of a larger piece on race in the 2012 election. I highly recommend also reading Ezra Klein on the same topic.

Nate Kratzer
Senior Data Scientist

My research interests include poverty, inequality, and data science.

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