Salon has published a lot of nonsense on libertarianism (e.g., anything by Michael Lind on the topic). So it was surprising, yesterday, to find that Kim Messick’s Salon essay on libertarianism was relatively thoughtful. No perfect, by any means, just better than most progressive-liberal attempts at criticizing libertarianism. The author at least gets basic points right and would surely score higher than most Salon writers on the relevant ideological Turing test (admittedly a low standard).
Just don’t take the title too seriously (“Libertarians’ reality problem: How an estrangement from history yields abject failure”). At Alternet the story is reproduced under the similarly silly title “How Libertarianism Would Actually Curtail Human Freedom.” Article writers often don’t choose their titles, editors do, so just skip ahead for the substance (you’ll have to similarly skim past the Tea Party and Republican chatter at the beginning and ignore the favorable linking to Lind’s Salon work). Once you skip ahead, you’ll find a reasonable journalistic effort to engage with and challenge an overly atomistic view of libertarianism.
Messick misses some things. He is apparently unfamiliar with left libertarianism (for example, the Center for a Stateless Society) or many of the writers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians; he thinks a libertarian free market would leave many people in soul-killing poverty; and at times his discussion confuses society with government. But the core of his challenge to (at least hard-core individualistic) depictions of libertarian principles makes useful work of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s writings on atomism.
In his essay “Atomism,” Taylor points out that we “only develop [our] characteristically human capacities in society” — including our capacity for choice. “Living in a society,” Taylor goes on, “is a necessary condition of the development of rationality … or of becoming a moral agent in the full sense of the term … or of becoming a fully responsible, autonomous being.” Given this, those who value personal autonomy must also affirm the value of its social sources: “[I]f we assert the right to one’s own independent moral convictions, we cannot… claim that we are not under any obligation ‘by nature’ to belong to and sustain a society of the relevant type”:
“[T]he free individual or autonomous moral agent can only achieve and maintain his identity in a certain type of culture… But these… do not come into existence spontaneously each successive instant. They are carried on in institutions and associations which require stability and continuity and frequently also support from the community as a whole… The crucial point here is this: since the free individual can only maintain his identity within a society/culture of a certain kind, he has to be concerned about the shape of this society/culture as a whole. He cannot… be concerned purely with his individual choices and the associations formed from such choices”.
Taylor shows us how to link the liberal concept of agency — the ideal of personal autonomy — with normative conclusions about what people should value. The connective tissue is the pattern of external resources on which our capacity for choice depends: the institutions, practices, and associations within which we develop and cultivate this capacity. For Taylor, it makes no sense to affirm the value of autonomy while denigrating (or simply ignoring) the social goods without which autonomy is impossible. Like communitarians, he thinks we should affirm these goods and not just our purely personal ends. Unlike them, he does not regard this as grounds for a wholesale rejection of liberal autonomy. Quite the contrary — he argues for a social element in ethical life precisely because he values autonomy and wants to sustain the cultural conditions upon which it rests.
On this I think Taylor (and by extension Messick) raises good points about the connections between society, moral development, and individual freedom. I just don’t think the only or even the best response to these points is to reject libertarian political philosophy. Messick sums up the above with, “The obvious inference is that we should see progressive liberalism as a kind of middle ground between communitarianism on the one hand and libertarianism on the other. It acknowledges the social dimensions of ethical life but accepts personal autonomy as a genuine ideal.”
But acknowledging “the social dimensions of ethical life” and “accepting personal autonomy as a genuine ideal” is exactly the common ground I want to occupy as a libertarian. The libertarian minded thinkers I like tend to emphasize the connection between increasing liberty and a flourishing society.
Messick may be surprised to learn there is active debate among libertarians on these issues of politics, markets, and social relations. Some libertarians insist non-aggression is the only necessary principle, while others suggest the broader social order is also important. In the context of these discussions, Messick’s outsider perspective on libertarianism, while imperfect, is good enough to be of some value to libertarians.