Friday, May 18, 2007

Three Questions On Liberty

In Why Libertarians Should Be Concerned with the History of Political Thought, Gene Callahan poses several questions for his readers. I'll take a stab at answering three of them here.

Is it acceptable to set aside any libertarian principles if that abeyance will help prevent the far greater loss of liberty that would follow military defeat?

No. Looking at the question from a practical standpoint, I believe the situation described (one in which setting aside libertarian principles will "help prevent far greater loss of liberty") could never arise. A society that stubbornly holds the policy of never setting aside libertarian principles will be inherently more free than one that explicitly keeps that possibility in reserve. Therefore the first society will be better able to unleash the boundless creativity of the market to provide its citizens with superior safety, which is, after all, nothing more than a (very important) good. The society that would commandeer private property for collective gain under any circumstances will be inherently less able to create market goods -- including security -- than one that refuses to consider the possibility.

This scenario is like the "ticking time bomb" argument for torture: both contain a false premise. In truth, a society that is willing to torture is much more likely to be the target of a terrorist attack than a society that never tortures. A policy of permitting torture in extreme circumstances brings our nightmares to life, because it ends up making those very circumstances much more likely to occur.

James Madison said it well:
It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The freemen of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much, soon to forget it.
Ought libertarians to applaud the creation of the Scottish and Welsh legislatures as representing the reduction of centralized state power, or denigrate them for providing a means for the political classes of those Labour-dominated nations to enact more interventionist legislation than they could in the UK as a whole?

If these developments lead towards decentralization, they ought to be applauded, for the path to market anarchy is the creation of ever-smaller independent city-states. The smaller the state, the more quickly and forcefully it experiences the consequences of anti-market actions. I think history bears this out, and one possible contributing factor is that citizens of a small state are more likely to have to depend on trade with citizens of neighboring states.

Are EU measures to dismantle trade barriers between member states an objectionable violation of national sovereignty or a laudable defense of an individual's right to trade with whomever he wishes?

They are an objectionable violation, because decentralization leads to market anarchy, and these central-government trade measures take their member states in the opposite direction.

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