|14A023 Message to an Ex-Left-Lib by Jim Davies, 7/5/2014
I'd heard previously of libertarians who lose heart in the face of deadly monotonous propaganda by the State, or of apathy in those we try to help, or who get distracted from the urgent task of resistance, or who fail to focus attention where it's most productive; but not of someone who clearly understood and embraced the libertarian vision but then gave it up, in repudiation. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, when a friend pointed me recently to a Salon article by Will Meyer, who says he did exactly that.
Will does seem to have departed sadly; he still admires the "contributions libertarianism makes to challenging power." His rejection amounts rather to what libertarians do not do; he wants something more than merely abstaining from hurting people. In his view the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) stops short; there should be something positive, to help folk. He says ours is a "limited ideology" and critiques us on "ethical" grounds.
I found Will's eaddress and wrote offering to engage him in a dialog, but saw no reply; so must conclude he is not interested. This ZGBlog offers some thoughts to any who are.
Mr Meyer is of course quite right; the NAP is a negative principle. It says to do no harm. I can see the point; that's the first principle a surgeon should follow, but if he does nothing else, the patient won't improve. Worse yet; it's true that while doing no harm, a libertarian could be quite an unpleasant fellow. The NAP does not oblige anyone to be a Good Samaritan; it does not prevent him from "passing by on the other side" and letting someone die, who obviously needs help. This worries Will.
So let's begin at the beginning. The NAP derives from the Self Ownership Axiom (SOA) and that is an axiom; it is impossible to refute. You have to start there, or else abandon reason and embrace myth or prejudice; every human being does, as a fact, rightfully own his own life. For that reason it is ethically terrible for him to damage another's life by interfering with his self-ownership. Hence, the NAP; and my point is that no alternative is possible, consistent with intellectual integrity. Humans being reasoning animals, anyone who rejects the NAP is acting inconsistently with his nature; he is less than a full human being.
But Will Meyer doesn't say he rejects it - he just wants to add to it. Okay Will, be my guest!
You want to go out of your way to help someone in need - wonderful! Your generosity will commend itself to all, and you may well live a more fulfilled life as a result. But don't compel me to do likewise, if I happen to be a miserly sonofabitch! - for that would violate the NAP, and so would make you less than human.
It's right there, I suggest, that the idea of improving on the NAP comes unstuck. It's very fine if someone voluntarily exceeds its moral requirements and does something generous. But to oblige someone to be generous who doesn't wish to be generous is to compel, and that violates the NAP! In other words, it's logically impossible to augment the NAP, for any person other than oneself, without contravening the NAP. And even to try is to become less than human.
There is another pertinent factor. The act of helping someone else brings pleasure and fulfillment to oneself, and so neighborliness and generosity are rather common. A very fine recent article by Doug Herman explored the slogan "Kindness Generates Kindness" and he showed why it's so. The reader can, from his own experience, probably confirm that. There's even more: pure self-interest, without any benevolent motive, frequently benefits someone in need anyway. Will Meyer instanced the contrast between a successful Western CEO and a Chinese factory worker; the fact is that by looking for the best bargain in labor (their own selfish interest) American CEOs have massively improved the living standards of millions of poor people in the Third World - especially China. With no compulsion at all!
You say, Will, that you wish for a future in which humans flourish, positively. So do I! Your article seems to favor equality of outcome ("I want a world of flattened hierarchies, including the nonviolent ones") but that would necessitate compulsion, or force, as above. And you say "The state is a giant engine for deforming human culture, and what’s left over once it’s smashed isn’t a foregone conclusion" but that is a half-truth. Of course it's true, because what humans do once we are free is unpredictable; the creation of wealth of all kinds will be limitless. But it's also false, in the sense you seem to imply - namely, that freedom will spawn some kind of non-state oppression and deformation. Freedom is the freedom for humans to be human, and I sufficiently trust the innate goodness of humanity to optimize the outcome. Whom else will you trust? - some imaginary super-human?
You say you want cultural excellence; so do I! - but I will do nothing to force that outcome. If a freed society mostly chooses cultural norms that I despise, I'll be very sorry and very surprised - but freedom means what it says, and includes the freedom to become banal. I will not compel folk to choose Katchaturian over Kool G Rap. Nor will I force anyone to hire a woman who prefers a man, nor a black applicant when he prefers white. Instead, I will trust the free market to place the cost of such prejudice exactly where it belongs.
You say your "goal isn’t a society based on property rights. My goal is human flourishing." There, I suggest, is where your reasoning came off the rails; for those two are mutually dependent. Not only can you have both, you must have both, logically. Property rights derive directly from axiomatic self-ownership, and flourishing derives directly from freedom - to try anything, do anything, achieve anything. Except to try to run somebody else's life; for that would make you less than human.