Friday, August 3, 2012

Liberty with a side of sauerkraut - Part 3 - Equality vs. Freedom

Jan Narveson at LSS 2012...
In my previous post, John Tomasi raised the idea of social justice through the fostering of the "democratic citizen," both concepts not common to libertarian discussions. The Sunday session at the Liberty Summer Seminar (LSS) began with a response to John Tomasi's presentation from Prof. Jan Narveson. Jan is the Chairman (among other things) of the Institute for Liberal Studies which runs the LSS.

Jan started his response with some comments on democracy, or more accurately some swipes at democracy. Our society, indeed much of the planet, views democracy as the ultimate form of government, and very often confuses it with freedom. It is after all, rule by the majority, the "will" of the people, so it must be correct.

Jan's first comment sounded like this: it was decided in a democratic vote (51 to 49) that you should be boiled in oil (ouch), then he went on to Churchill's famous quote about democracy. He then asked "if your rights were protected, would you still want democracy, maybe not?"

The great lie of democracy is that laws are passed by the majority, its never true. And even if it were true, is it right, is it moral? In a representative democracy such as we have, laws are never passed by the majority, always a plurality, and as for the laws themselves, some, we would all want, but many are designed to benefit certain groups at the expense of others. "Democracy," Jan continues, "proves only who would win in a fair fight." It's not the most rational approach, it's rarely the best idea, and is simply based on the size of the mob and its clout. "Is this a good system of government, he asked?"

The democratic citizen that John Tomasi wants, must submerge his "self-ownership," his right to his property, to people he doesn't know, and for a purpose he does not necessarily support, mediated by a government he may not have chosen. That is essentially what we have now, but John Tomasi thinks that if we allow people to accumulate as much wealth as possible, this satisfies libertarians.

Prof. Narveson points to a principle that is popular among some left liberals called the Difference Principle, based on the faulty premise that: "Each member of society has an equal claim on their society’s goods." Jan referred to it as the "maximin" principle, or maximize the minimum, favouring the bottom but allowing the wealthy no restrictions. Note that word "allowing." The reason this inequality might be acceptable to some left liberals, that typically have problems with property rights and wealth accumulation, is that it could be to the advantage of those who are worst-off, because the really wealthy have more to "share" with them.

I doubt that satisfies many libertarians, not me anyway. Many people think that the wealthy have a duty to share. That is a moral position that I don't support, it's typically a religious dictate. I prefer the word responsibility, it's not as strong as duty which is obligatory. A responsible human being, that has the where-with-all to share, probably should, but they should be able to choose.

Prof. Narveson finished by stating that this issue highlights the difference between "equality and freedom." The former is forced, the latter is not. "Free markets," he said provide equality," because no one has coercive powers.

The next speaker Jacob Levy, a political science professor from McGill, and a more frequent writer for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, argued from a more practical position in support of John Tomasi. His point was that the state already exists, its been around since the 1600's, and has evolved along with modern financial institutions in most jurisdictions. "The state will not be legislated away," he said, an aspiration of some libertarians. The state has armies, taxation and spending authority and in many ways national defence is already redistributionist, both rich and poor are defended equally. That argument is a bit of a cop out I think. I kept thinking of the argument from the American Revolution, when the slaves are freed who will pick the cotton?

The final speaker was Pierre Desrochers, who introduced his book (The Locavore's Dilemma) co-authored by his wife Hiroko Shimizu - that I have already talked about here.

LSS 2012 was a memorable experience, you should come next year.  


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