02 August 2007

Shuggy on libertarians

A couple of months ago Shuggy stirred up some dust in the blogosphere with a critical piece on libertarians, which I only recently came across. Shuggy writes well, and persuasively, and I found myself thinking "does he have a point?"

He raises some interesting issues.

... one of the reasons I haven't come across any libertarians in my community may well be — if what they write is anything to go by — that libertarians don't seem to live in communities of any kind.
But don't we all live in communities? We live in towns, or villages; we have neighbours. We go shopping, we use local services. Some of us have children, and they go to schools. In what sense do non-libertarians live more "in communities" than libertarians? Do they have a higher average number of people they would describe as "friends" or "acquaintances"?
... libertarians, as far as one can tell, tend to be male rather than female; more likely to be without dependent children than with; more likely to have studied economics than history (are there any "libertarian historians"? Because history is full of bad news about the human condition); private or grammar educated rather than comp; relatively wealthy rather than relatively poor.
It's not clear what implications are intended by this. But here are some possible explanations (purely speculative) for any would-be correlations:
  • more male than female: because women, on average, tend to have a greater emotional preference for the collective over the individual?
  • more likely to be without dependent children: because it's harder to get a well-paying job as an overt anti-statist? or because it's harder to find a girlfriend if you're an anti-collectivist (see above)?
  • more likely to have studied economics than history: because, while the study of history is now suffused with left-wing bias, academic economics still finds it hard to avoid the idea that capitalism has important benefits?
  • private or grammar educated rather than comp: because, on average, they haven't had the stuffing knocked out of them quite so much? or been exposed to as much pro-collectivist propaganda?

  • "relatively wealthy rather than relatively poor". This idea is of course consistent with the standard leftist model of a wealthy elite running global capitalism, opposed to state intervention because it interferes with their interests. Assuming Shuggy's suggested correlation holds (I am sceptical), a couple of objections could be raised:

    1) Might the rich(er) have got it "right", in terms of having a better perspective on whether a large state generates real benefits? And the poor(er) have got it wrong, failing to realise that the putative benefits being offered aren't benefits at all? E.g. state education which is worth less than nothing, because it permanently demoralises people even if it teaches them enough to get by on; state health care which treats people like cattle, frequently doing harm rather than good, killing people without their consent? At least, let's not assume that just because there is a correlation, it proves something about which side's views reflect the greater good.

    2) I get the sense that, for the Left, there is no class which can be regarded as supporting non-left politics for morally sound reasons. If you're rich, you're protecting your "privileges". If you're working class, it's because you have "false consciousness", or (more contemporaneously) you're a "materialistic chav". If you're bourgeois — well, you're bourgeois.

    However, Shuggy rightly notes that "we're talking about differences in ideology here — the truth or otherwise of which is not dependent on the sociological profile of those who espouse it."

    "... history is full of bad news about the human condition". The implication here seems to be that utopian libertarians, who think all will be lovely with a nightwatchman state, are deluded. I don't know about most libertarians, but some of them would surely argue that many of the most awful bits of history demonstrate the risks of allowing too much power to the government.
    Libertarians ... give the impression — to me, anyway — of people who have surrendered the anarchist position very grudgingly and whose default position with regards to the state is that the validity of its very existence is something that requires continual justification.
    True, that does seem to be the position of some libertarians. Personally, I think focusing the debate on the "ideal" society, or on the justifications for having any kind of state (which are however genuinely problematic, notwithstanding any desire to dismiss the issue as academic) is largely a waste of time. Perhaps the libertarians who go on in this way are actually demonstrating their awareness of the ideological unacceptability of liberty, by emphasising extremes which they know will remain theoretical.

    I think the more sensible "libertarians" (or "classical liberals") realise that suspicion of the state is a political attitude rather than a utopian model, and therefore concentrate on attacking the very common arguments which presuppose the opposite assumption: that the state expresses the collective will and is therefore bound to be a force for good.

    Shuggy is contemptuous of a Samizdata article which suggests that Cho Seung-hui's rage at the system might have had something to do with having been forcibly exposed to an educational environment that didn't suit him. I think the hypothesis is worth considering. There does seem to be a tendency for US massacres to occur at schools. Is it possible that at least some US public schools are such awful places that it tips people who are a bit unbalanced, but who would otherwise become reasonably normal citizens, over the edge? I have no wish to debate this idea on this occasion, but I think it deserves an airing.
    Would libertarians who favour, for example, privatizing the health service have a slightly different take — a different consciousness, you could say — if they'd had the experience of someone they loved being saved from disease, disfigurement or death because of the existence of this 'Stalinist' NHS?
    Would socialists who regard the NHS as a sacred cow have a slightly different take if they'd had the experience of someone they loved being left to die in a corridor, or having their life ruined by a botched operation, or being involuntarily "euthanised" because their life was no longer considered of benefit to them? But perhaps not. It's probably too difficult to abandon the belief that, because they are "trained professionals", doctors and nurses are bound to be acting in the best interests of patients even when there is no commercial pressure to do so. So, faced with evidence to the contrary, the individual patient or relative will take refuge in the thought that their experience must have been unlucky and atypical.

    A couple of commenters on Shuggy's post are illuminating about attitudes to libertarianism (expletives deleted):

    Will: The 'libertarians' in the comments here do a good job of reminding me why I hate the ****ers to such an extent I'd gladly see them imprisoned in the feudal ****hole they would undoubtedly be in if their stupid, pig-ignorant ideas were ever made concrete (which will never happen of course, because they are thick ignorant idealist ****ants).

    It'll never happen because the libertarian core idea is that they abhor the coercive power of a state, therefore they are never going to be in a position to challenge the power of a state as that would mean becoming the thing they abhor — a coercive power. Libertarians — mostly harmless.

    Sad but true: the comment from unaha-closp highlights the fact that libertarianism has very little hope of having a meaningful impact, once there exists a state apparatus into which half the population have been enlisted by means of jobs, handouts or other bribes.

    One critical thing I will say about (some) libertarians. They do have a tendency to be a bit cliquey, to form into exclusive groups, and to be reluctant to cooperate with (let alone promote) others who may share their viewpoint. But then, the same thing could be said about Conservatives. And probably — though I have less experience in this area — socialists as well. Politics, on the web as in the physical world, is a very clubby business. Not suited to intellectuals at all.