The Trouble with Feser (on Libertarianism)

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Ed Feser’s recent article, The Trouble with Libertarianism (blogged here by Stephen Carson), like your boy Jonah Goldberg and one-hit neocon wonder Francis Fukuyama, has to misconstrue libertarianism in order to attack it. He sets up straw men that are easily knocked down. But the libertarianism that he attacks is not the libertarianism I know.First, note his definition:

“Libertarianism” is usually defined as the view in political philosophy that the only legitimate function of a government is to protect its citizens from force, fraud, theft, and breach of contract, and that it otherwise ought not to interfere with its citizens’ dealings with one another, either to make them more economically equal or to make them more morally virtuous.

This is not too far off, but I would say libertarianism is, at its essence (2), simply based on the preference for peaceful interaction and opposition to violent conflict with our neighbors. In short, it is opposed to aggression, the initiation of force against others; or worded differently, the unconsented to use or invasion of the borders of the bodies or property of others. As a consequence of this, we naturally oppose institutionalized aggression, i.e., the state, or at least seek to keep the state within strict limits and to only a few, narrowly-defined functions.

But what makes Feser’s argument an attack on a straw man is his insistence that libertarianism is correct because it is “genuinely neutral between diverse moral and religious worldviews.” Not only tradition or natural-law based versions of libertarianism, but also contractarianism and utilitarian strands of libertarianism “fail to be neutral between moral and religious points of view.”

I find this utterly bizarre. Of course libertarianism is not “neutral.” True, we support a political ideal that does permit individuals freedom to pursue a diverse variety of modes of life. But it does not permit, say, axe-murdering, if that happens to be your gig. No, we aren’t neutral about that, sorry to say. It of course is opposed by its nature to those who want to use the institutionalized force of the state to outlaw non-aggressive behavior that they don’t like.

Libertarians are opposed to aggression. We favor voluntary, peaceful, cooperative interaction between people. So we are not neutral as between the entrepreneur and the criminal, the saint and the socialist , the victim and the aggressor, the civilized man and the savage. We are not neutral at all. I, for one, am not. I hate the latter, and love the former. I would stamp out the latter, for the sake of the former. The criminals are a wretched excuse for humanity, but really just a technical problem. Our fellow, civilized kith and kin are what life is all about.

To emphasize: note that nothing Feser says about us not being “neutral” in any way justifies the initiation of violent force against one’s peaceful neighbors.

10:38 pm on July 27, 2004