It seems to me that a high value should be placed on liberty because it enables people with different values to live in peace and to pursue their individual objectives in ways that are compatible and even mutually beneficial. This doesn’t make liberty the only ethical value that matters. It does mean, however, that the onus should rest squarely with those who seek to restrict liberty to show that this will result in net benefits in terms of human flourishing.
I would like to think those views make me a liberal, but that term has been hijacked by others (conservatives in Australia and egalitarians in the United States). I usually label myself as a libertarian, but if Walter Block’s discussion of whether Milton Friedman was a libertarian is definitive, then I definitely don’t qualify. I could not be described as an anarcho-capitalist or a minarchist (my spellchecker wanted to change that to monarchist, which would also be equally true, but beside the point). Perhaps my views could be described as ‘minarchism plus’, but the ‘plus’ involves a lot of things that Walter would consider to disqualify me from being classified as a libertarian. For example, I support government action to issue money that is not backed by gold, central bank control of monetary aggregates, some prudential regulation, a social welfare safety net providing for somewhat more than minimal subsistence needs, some environmental regulation, some anti-trust regulation and even democracy.
According to Walter Block’s classification that probably makes me a classical liberal rather than a libertarian, but I am not sure that Walter’s distinction between classical liberals and libertarians is widely accepted. Rather than attempting to define libertarianism from first principles it might be more appropriate to define it in terms of the values and beliefs of self-labelled libertarians.
Until recently I thought my values would be fairly consistent with those of most self-labelled libertarians. That was before I had read Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion’ and competed some of the questionnaires on the YourMorals site. The research by Haidt and his colleagues shows, not surprisingly, that the view of fairness/reciprocity displayed by libertarians tends to place a high value on individual liberty. It also shows that libertarians tend to be much like conservatives in terms of issues related to harm/care and much like liberals on issues related to authority/respect and purity/sanctity. (A paper comparing the ethical values of libertarians with those of liberals and conservatives can be found here. The findings have been discussed by Ronald Bailey at reason.com.)
My values in relation to fairness/reciprocity seem to be similar to those of other libertarians, but I appear to be a bleeding heart liberal in terms of the harm/care foundation and a conservative in terms of purity/sanctity. I think this may have to do with the difficulty of getting people to reveal their values, rather than a real difference in values. Many libertarians (and conservatives) may be reluctant to acknowledge that they feel sympathy for people suffering economic hardships because they are concerned that this might make them vulnerable to higher taxes. I don’t think it does. A decent safety net doesn’t have to involve high taxes if it is appropriately means tested and recipients of benefits are given appropriate incentives to look after themselves.
Something similar might apply in relation to purity/ sanctity. It is, of course, possible to view a behaviour as immoral and yet defend the right of an adult to choose to engage in it, provided that it doesn’t involve interference with the rights of other people. While completing the ‘Moral Foundations Questionnaire’, however, I felt some tension in acknowledging that some behaviour is immoral even though I felt disgusted by it. This makes me wonder whether libertarians (and other liberals) learn to cope with social conservatives who want to make immoral behaviours illegal by downplaying the link between imprudence and immorality. If you agree that disgusting behaviour is immoral, you know that social conservatives are likely to view such agreement as support for making the behaviours illegal. So it may seem to make sense to claim that the behaviour isn’t immoral because no-one is harmed except, perhaps, the person engaging in it.
I think the contraction of morality among liberals to issues relating to rights and obligations may be more apparent than real. Robert Skidelsky argued a couple of years ago that we (people in western societies) know ‘at some level’ that some things are ‘vile’, yet we no longer have ‘the authority and words to say so’. My response was that he had just said that a particular TV program was vile. There should be no problem in anyone stating that they feel that a TV program, or anything else, is vile, disgusting or immoral. The problem is that some of us are reluctant to do this because social conservatives still want to make immorality illegal when no infringement of rights is involved.
I will return to a discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s book later. In my view it makes an important contribution to understanding of what is wrong with politics.