Liberty Is All Well and Good, But . . .
I very much enjoyed Roderick Long’s article ‘Equality: Unknown Ideal’. I have to admit, having an idea that Long was some kind of ‘left-libertarian’ (not totally unjustified), I was expecting it to be a smuggling of egalitarian ideas into traditional libertarian/classical liberal ideas. I was pleasantly surprised by Professor Long’s round rejection of the more commonly supported notion of socioeconomic equality, in favour of a version of equality that is soundly based in personal property rights. In fact, he puts it so clearly, it makes it even more clear in my mind that there are only two ways to look at the world: through freedom or through aggression.
Roughly put, the basis of liberal ideas that inspired founding fathers of the United States, and later on, the modern libertarian movement, is that all people have the same rights, accorded by nature: no man or woman has a higher claim to rights than any other. We are equal insofar as no person can justly impose or subordinate them self on another.
Originating with John Locke, this truly radical notion informed the Declaration of Independence. Here, in its original draft:
“We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We take the equality aspect of liberalism for granted, so engrained it is in our culture. We have an intuition that taking someone else’s TV by force is immoral, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, male or female. We just know that slavery is wrong, without it even being explained to us. It’s one of the triumphs of liberalism that this moral principle has become a cultural norm.
It is in no way a given. In the ancient world, and for most of civilisation, it was just ‘known’ that there were inherent differences in authority and that some people were born to rule over others. Slavery was simply a part of life for most of human history. It took a drastic intellectual force to shift our species’ moral intuition in the right direction, i.e. liberalism.
There is no doubt that liberalism is born in equality. It’s just important to define what kind of equality we are talking about.
Long shows clearly that equality of authority must not be confused with socioeconomic equality. You have to choose one or the other.
“Nor will it do to reply that socioeconomic inequality is itself a form of inequality in authority, and so should be forbidden for the same reason.”
He then quotes Rothbard:
“A refuses to make an exchange with B. What are we to say … if B brandishes a gun and orders A to make the exchange? … B is committing violence; there is no question about that…. [T]his violence is either invasive and therefore unjust, or defensive and therefore just. If we adopt the “economic-power” argument, we must choose the latter position; if we reject it, we must adopt the former…. The “middle-of-the-road” statist cannot logically say that there are “many forms” of unjustified coercion. He must choose one or the other and take his stand accordingly. Either he must say that there is only one form of illegal coercion—overt physical violence—or he must say that there is only one form of illegal coercion—refusal to exchange.”
This made me recall the countless “middle-of-the-road” statists I’ve conversed with, that pay lip service to liberty but end up dismissing it for some greater good. They will say something like:
“personal liberty is important, but . . .”
And in their proposal for some state intervention they will stress the perennial need to make a compromise between personal freedoms and some other value, like wealth equality, social justice or just the old cliche: “the good of the society”.
As Long intimates, if these statists are truly innocent, they would not so blithely wave away the concern for personal liberty. They would explore each and every possible way to reconcile individual freedom and the outcomes they desire. They would want to be unable to disprove the liberal case. Only at that point, when they regretfully concede that aggressive state intervention is the only option, can they be considered well-meaning.
If liberty was such a great value to them, it would severely pain them to have to argue for intervention. How many statists do you know like that? The only people that seem to qualify are minarchists, that genuinely can’t see how society would be possible without state-run courts, etc. They get a pass from me.
I’m going to be harsh to everyone else: they’re being disingenuous, and they truly do not care for individual liberty at all. They only say that they value it because they have some intuition that lots of people also value it. But to them it represents an irritating inconvenience. They simply do not believe in equality of authority.
Quickly, another point: left-libertarians are also disingenuous, by quoting this article out of context, to argue that different types of equality and opposition to hierarchies and socioeconomic “oppression” through voluntary means are inherent implications of libertarianism. Long is not saying that at all in this article, and Rothbard definitely isn’t. You guys just need to hear the word “equality” and then you get out your hammers and sickles.
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