Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Exposing Entrenched Political Dynamics in American Political Narratives, Part 3: Two Arguments Against Libertarianism

I want to take issue with the fidelity to free markets. This post was prompted by watching Senator Ron Paul’s very faithful commitment to free markets and libertarianism in the recent Republican debate for the party’s nomination for the presidency. For him and libertarians like him, America was founded on the concept of liberty as articulated by libertarianism (I find this historical legitimizing of libertarianism problematic, but won’t get into in this post). A bold defense of liberty requires that we leave others alone. As such, libertarianism as a political and moral philosophy usually puts its principle:

Principle of Non-Intervention of Another’s Autonomy (PNIAA hereafter) states that agents ought to never interfere with the free exercise of another’s liberty and that the range of rights of others shares in this same principle reciprocally.

PNIAA is the fundamental principle that generates rights considerations politically and on the intra-personal level it generates a respect of an agent’s autonomy. In this way, it does come close to Kantian ethics, but in Kantian ethics, the respect for autonomy can decidedly inform more than what we ought not to do. It can generate some duties about what ought to do. PNIAA’s first shortcoming is that a deontological principle that forbids interference with the exercise of another’s autonomy can only generate principles of non-intervention, it can generate no positive duties. As such, adequate moral theories generate action guidance for both positive and negative duties. This theory is entirely one-sided. Therefore, it should be rejected.

Another fatal flaw of libertarianism is a flaw of its Kantian cousin—the isolated subject (what we can also call a self) necessary for such robust exercise of personal liberty. This is what is necessary for PNIAA to "get off the ground", that is, to make any sense whatsoever, yet the isolated subject does not exist. There is no concept of self that is atomistic and so autonomous that it can be abstracted from the concrete lived-experience of a self acting in the world. Selves are relational, and this relational aspect of the self is always becoming, always making possible my actions. It cannot be blatantly ignored. Selves know who they are from their interaction with others in a public space. I disclose myself in action as Arendt would claim and for my action to have any meaning whatsoever, it must appear before others in a very public space. Others must recognize what it is I have done, and a philosophical examination of the self acting in the world must articulate the necessity of otherness. Others recognize, accept, judge, hate, despise, vilify and enjoy who I am, what I have done and how my identity and actions resonate to the community. If I am an entertainer, I know that I am a good entertaining by being in relation to others.

In libertarianism, the self is completely abstracted from the concrete effects of a self relating to others. The theory in American political rhetoric takes on a dimension of the hypothetical, yet if your ideal does not mesh with how it is lived in practice, then what Ron Paul and other free-market enthusiasts are doing is using libertarianism as a trick. It is a trick to deceive you into favoring a system in which wealthy politicians already benefit. Libertarianism is attractive from the sense that it emphasizes no strings upon the state to affect the self-determination of those who work hard, and by work hard I facetiously mean those that have money already. It provides the myth of the self-made man that has entire control over what he can do if given enough freedom to do so. In libertarianism, the robust conception of a completely free self does not come with any aspect of relationality to it. This means that environment has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not you suffer. All you have to do is bootstrap yourself and you can transcend to wealthy heights. The actual data supplied by social scientists that study social mobility is more depressing than we'd like to admit.

As far back as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, it has been realized that the actual political conditions that foster the conditions under which we all live has a direct relation on whether or not we can achieve the good life. It was Aristotle and not Marx that first had this insight. Here, the “good life” does not mean a condo in the Hamptons, or a top spot in a wealthy career. The good life is something more akin to living a life in which the goods of one’s life: friendship, justice, family, knowledge and even wealth are balanced such that one is permanently content. There is no one good that you possess that takes central attention away from any others, and it is the type of life that when looked back from the deathbed, one can say they have lived a good life.

Given that Americans are so obsessed with the exercise of their freedom in consumer-like ways, this argument usually falls on deaf ears. However, the intuition behind it is sound. Rather than focus on a moral and political philosophy that promotes a lofty conception of the self, we should focus instead on promoting a dialogue that examines the ends of what we want our society to become. It should not be one in which the exercise of freedom can only be understood in economic terms of utility. That is a base conception already of how we are, and once someone is trapped in that instrumental reasoning of means-to-end mentality of a cost-benefit analysis, one cannot see the error of that way of thinking. Time and time again, I get "into it" with free market enthusiasts (and one economics graduate student) and they cannot understand how value (meant here as a reason for why someone acts) can be intrinsic and non-instrumental. This creates a problem--namely that moral reasons largely lose their purpose (though some versions of utilitarianism might survive). The exercise of freedom to create and live has more dimensions than the way Americans tend to always associate the exercise of their freedom to the accrue of profit. There's more to life, and the Aristotelian way of understanding this insight facilitates a better way to address what America ought to become.

If the political world fosters conditions such as a disparity between all the resources necessary to live the good life, then it does not promote human flourishing. Libertarianism is dangerous for that reason. It divorces the communal structures that come to play out and determine how people can exercise their capacities to better themselves. Therefore, I recommend that what replaces a fidelity to free-markets in our public discourse is a renewed consideration as to what we think the conditions of Americans desire for the flourishing of our country rather than insist on ideologies that are blatantly false in their metaphysical articulation of what a self is.

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