On How My Mind Has Changed

I used to spend a fair amount of energy defending libertarian positions on politics and economics on this blog. In the time that has passed since then, I have shifted my positions on a number of issues, but the conclusion is, I don’t regard myself as a libertarian in any sense anymore. In general, my political/economic views probably come most near to Philip Blond’s Red Toryism (or, insofar as it is another name for the same thing, Blue Labour). Since I have changed positions quite substantially, I feel I owe it to my readers to be explicit in my shift.

The story of how I got here is somewhat boring, so I’ll keep it brief. Firstly, learning from Edward Feser about the tradition of natural law thinking, I eventually came to give up allegiance to Rothbard’s principle of non-aggression, which is the root of the anarcho-capitalist (and much libertarian) thinking. After reading The Last Superstition and Aquinas, I came across a paper written by Feser (“Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation“) on natural law and property rights in particular, which, among other things, made a case for wealth distribution in a number of carefully predefined moral situations.

After that shift, I was open to seeing a larger moral space for the entity of government to operate. In conversations with friends who are socially and theologically conservative, but not politically or economically libertarian, I came to be even more open to state intervention than Edward Feser is. For a natural law argument for that position, one good well-known example from the contemporary Roman Catholic position would be John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights. From a fairly recent Protestant perspective, I highly recommend Emil Brunner’s Justice and the Social Order.

This gave me a natural law underpinning for my views, but it did not address the biblical concerns I’ve had with this position since I read Reconstructionist literature in high school (which basically argued for political and economic libertarianism from scripture). The best responses I’ve discovered to this line of argument are from two people formerly influenced by that line of thinking. First, Peter Leithart, in his two articles: Political Hermeneutics: The Argument from Silence (Part 1 and 2). And second, my friend Brad Littlejohn, in a number of blog posts and book reviews, which I will list below according to the argument he addresses:

“1 Samuel 8 requires a small state.” – Here. Also, my own thoughts about this passage apparently align with those of early Reformers like Peter Martyr Vermigli, who said the sin of Israel here was rejection of God, not the choice of particular political structure.

“The 8th Commandment assumes private property.” – Here. Neither Brad nor I would not want to say, of course, that there is never a place for anything that might be called “private property”. (However, not even every form of capital-S Socialism would say this.) But (I would say) something like Aquinas’ views on the matter is probably closest to the truth: resources (capital, etc.) were given by God with the purpose of sustaining all life, especially human life, and private property is a human institution (human positive law). Therefore, while a regime which allows private property is useful in many ways (it can help with the incentive problem, the knowledge problem, allows division of labour and the production of more resources to take care of people’s needs than a pure command economy with no differentiation), it’s not an absolute and inviolable value or law. In fact, if that human institution gets in the way of the natural law intrinsic in the goods themselves (they are for the needs of everybody), then it is morally right to override that human institution (assuming no other moral problems arise with doing so in a particular case).

“St. Paul says if you want to eat, you must work.” I can’t find where, but Brad pointed out in conversation that while this makes sense in the context of a voluntary community, there are other relevant considerations that would apply within a nation state. One of the most important, of course, is just that a nation-state uses coercion to back up its rules; another is that the state is the widest community accessible to an individual. That is, if a church refuses to help, there may likely be others available. Not so with an entire nation-state. Thus the consequences a church’s refusal to help are not as severe as those flowing from a state’s. That is not to say, of course, that there is nothing applicable about Paul’s words to a government. I think there is, and I would argue there is a place for some sort of distinction (yes, I realize I am weaseling here) between deserving and undeserving poor. But any application of a command outside of its original context requires noting the moral significance of the new context.

And then there were other arguments I had picked up for political/economic libertarianism along the way. For example, the five that Brad lists in his review of Jay Richard’s Money, Greed, and God:

1) The Dystopia Fallacy

In this fallacy, Richards picks the worst possible example of an alternative to capitalism, and uses it as a bogeyman to scare people away from imagining that there could be alternatives. …

2) The Tweaking Fallacy

This is a common approach among free-marketeers. What they do is they set up some idealized scenario of a well-functioning market, and then hypothesize one particular change in policy that is intended to make things work better. Unsurprisingly, the change upsets the system, and ends up doing more harm than good. But most intelligent people agitating for change don’t just want to make one little change in the system; they want to make a lot of changes, building on one another. Or they want to change the assumptions inherent in the system. …

3) The Not-Necessarily Fallacy

In this, another favorite tactic of Richards’s, the logic of the argument runs like this: Opponents of capitalism say that capitalism makes the rich richer at the poor’s expense. This complaint assumes a zero-sum game–that wealth is never created, only transferred. But this is not always the case. Let me show you some examples of how free exchange can make both parties wealthier.

Ergo, capitalism is not a zero-sum game, ergo, the rich do not get rich at the poor’s expense. The problem here of course is that almost no critic of capitalism is so daft as to complain that it is always a zero-sum game. Everyone recognizes that of course it is quite possible for business to actually add net value to everyone concerned, and that this happens all the time, and is much of the reason for the prosperity of the world today. But do all resources work that way? Well, no. Some resources, like land, are fixed and cannot be created. Some markets–many financial markets, for instance–are essentially zero-sum markets. …

4) The Coercion Fallacy

I have written on this before at great length, so hopefully I can be brief. Richards frequently makes his case by indulging in a sense of moral outrage at the coercion of government coercing people to do stuff, even for good ends, and of course he repeatedly defends the free market by insisting that it is, of course, free. Whatever you don’t like about it, at least it doesn’t force people to do stuff, but lets everyone meet on an equal level, and exchange what they want less of for what they want more of. Everything is completely voluntary. [I’ve already somewhat addressed this above, though Brad goes in a different direction with it in his post–AF] …

5) The Theft Fallacy

Related to the “Coercion” fallacy is of course the “Theft” fallacy–the repeated rhetorical assertion that any redistribution or contro of private resources by the government is “confiscation” or “theft.” I’m sure you know the sort of thing I am talking about, but here’s a sample quote:

“Every government has to collect taxes to fund services beneficial to all–to maintain courts, protect citizens from domestic and foreign predators, enforce traffic law and contracts, and so forth. We have a right to protect ourselves from aggressors, for instance, so we can delegate that right to government. We don’t have the right to take the property of one person and give it to another. Therefore, we can’t rightfully delegate that function to the state. Delegated theft is still theft.”

As I’ve argued before, this argument collapses on its own terms. Almost any “legitimate” government function breaks down when pressed. Some citizens have enough mobile capital that if an enemy should attack the US, they could easily pack up and move to London with few adverse consequences, so why is it worth their while to pay tax dollars to defend less affluent citizens. Maybe they are staunchly pacifist or at least feel that America’s enemies have been stirred up by acts of aggression that such citizens have bitterly opposed. They didn’t support the actions that created the enemies, so why should they have to pay for the cost of restraining those enemies. Or what about those of us who live in inner cities and walk everywhere. Why should we have to pay for the maintenance of the roads and traffic laws? If societies cannot enact policies that benefit some people more directly than others, then they can’t enact any policies.

So, that’s where I am now. Until I change my mind again.