Add Bob Higgs to the list of non-pathetic economists, with his excellent essay on two libertarian camps and his thoughts on how best to persuade others that freedom is good (thanks to Don Boudreaux on Cafe Hayek for the pointer).

To describe the two camps, Higgs uses two words whose meaning may escape the causal reader who doesn’t even know that libertarians support liberty (notice the same root word).

Aside: I’ve found that many non-libertarians haven’t yet made the connection between the two words liberty and libertarian, as the word libertarian seems to occupy the same space in their brains as ‘conspiracy theorists with tinfoil hats.’

I’m often asked, “What does a libertarian believe in?”. I respond, “Uh…liberty.” They respond, “Really? Ah!”

The two camps Higgs describes are consequentialists and deontologists.

The first camp supports liberty because they believe it produces the best results, the most prosperity (i.e. has good ‘consequences’; same root word as camp name).

The second camp supports liberty because they believe that freedom is morally right.

Higgs admits that his journey to libertarianism started with understanding the consequentialist argument, after becoming convinced that central planning ruined civilizations like the Soviet Union. I too came this route.

Higgs then recognized his natural appreciation for the deontologist argument that liberty is morally right. He describes the deonologist argument as plainly as I’ve seen:

Yet no one really needed to persuade me that people by nature deserve to be free, that each person possesses a natural right to control his own life insofar as the exercise of that right does not conflict with other people’s exercise of the same right.

Higgs then wonders which strategy would be best to convince others to support liberty. Show them how liberty produces better results or convince them that it is morally right? He worries that the former leaves folks open to flip-flopping as others may present convincing cases that less liberty produces better results.

Higgs and I agree that the moral argument is intuitive for many people, maybe most people. But, even the moral argument has the flip-flopping weakness of the results-based argument.

Some folks are good at framing non-liberty-related-issues as anti-liberty arguments to play on our moral intuition.

Home ownership is a good example. Somewhere along the way, we stopped thinking of home ownership as a privilege earned by being responsible by making such choices as paying bills on time and saving for a down payment, and started thinking of it as a right.

If a lender denied you a loan because of your bad bill-paying history, then it was framed that the lender was oppressing your freedom to own a home, instead of correctly recognizing that you hadn’t earned the privilege because you had made bad choices. See how that re-framing works? Loads of people bought that argument.

Politics is filled with these arguments. Do we have a right to a living wage? Do we have a right to health care? Do we have a right to live comfortably? Many people think yes.

I also think Higgs overlooked more than the flip-flopping potential of the moral argument for liberty.

It’s not just by luck that people deserve to be free and that produces the best results. There’s no need for two camps for liberty. It’s part of the same idea. Separating that into two camps is like separating the component gases of air. You no longer have air. Those two things make liberty.

Having two camps entertains the belief that you might have one without the other. But, in this reality, you don’t. Having one without the other is an idea, liberty is real.

There’s yet another part to liberty that we don’t recognize. Higgs said that people, by nature, deserve to be free.

I disagree. We earn our liberty by respecting the liberty of others. Higgs said this in the second part of his quote. In my opinion, that eliminates the need for terms like ‘by nature’, because any study of history shows that liberty does not exist by nature. It only exists with others respect it.

When I think about my journey to liberty and what moved me to it, I recall a couple of  stunning revelations.

The first, which made me the most cautious about throwing my support behind seemingly well-intentioned (though I would come to learn the lesson of the bootlegger the Baptists), “for-the-greater-good” (and I come to learn that greater good cannot be measured) program was when I realized that a lot of the do-good beliefs I advocated conflicted with the liberty of others. I simply hadn’t recognized it before.

Do we have a right to a living wage? That sounds nice and well-intentioned. Breathing any hint of skepticism of this ‘right’ can bring on the wrath of the do-gooders. But, the reality is that trying to guarantee this right necessarily conflicts with the liberty of someone — even the very people you think you are helping. If you tell them that you do not want them working for a wage less than what you consider a ‘living wage’, even if they are perfectly willing to and their situation allows for it, then you are infringing on their liberty and you are making the heady assumption that you know what is right for them.

If you do not respect the liberty of those folks, why should they respect yours?

My second stunning revelation: I had not accounted for the risk that the actions I advocated to help some might be wrong and could hurt the very folks I thought I was helping.

Do we all have a right to a living wage? Again, sounds nice. But attempting to put that into practice has trade-offs beyond infringing on liberties, which is the is the source of the results-based argument for liberty. Rather than guaranteeing someone a living wage, you may reduce their opportunity to earn any wage and deprive them of chances to gain work experience that could lead to higher wages for them in the future, because you’ve priced them out of the market.

What if someone came along and determined that your wage is too low and forced your employer to raise it 20%. You might be happy. Until your employer decides it’s not worth it and eliminates your job. Your new buddy will claim they were just trying to help you out. You might tell them to mind their own business next time.

To convince others of the virtues of liberty, I favor two approaches. First, we should find eye-opening, compelling and truthful ways to demonstrate clearly when folks are trampling on the liberty of others. I don’t think many of them think of it that way.

Second, we should do the same to demonstrate that many arguments framed as a restricting liberty are dishonest and wrong. For example, expecting prospective homeowners to establish a pattern of responsible (especially financially responsible) behavior is a reasonable and effective hurdle for home ownership and not a restriction of their liberty.

1 thought on “Liberty

  1. Pingback: Oh yeah…liberty | Our Dinner Table


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