Critiques of libertarian thought entertain me. I’m happy to think about issues from my perspective and from the perspectives of others. I’m willing and eager to learn and grow. More often than not in these critiques, though, I’m left with “hmmm, that isn’t libertarianism.” For example, this post from Ophelia Benson:
One question Greta gave us was “does affirmative action work?”
I don’t think I started by saying it depends what we mean by “work” but I think I did indicate that that’s what I meant. Maybe I started with “Yes in the sense that” and went on from there. I think it does work in the (familiar) sense that if you always see X job or vocation or career full of all or mostly men (or white people or rich people and so on) then if you are not a man (or white etc) you will conclude, without deciding to conclude it, that you’re not supposed to be there.
This thought irritates the bejesus out of a lot of people. That’s sad for them but that doesn’t make it not true.
Ok, they perhaps think, but you can’t do anything about it without a lot of Professional Victimhood and Social Engineering and paying attention and all kinds of shit we don’t want to do. The hell with that. Don’t do anything, because.
I don’t like to excerpt that much, but that was more complex than “Ophelia Benson thinks X” about affirmative action. I think there’s truth there. It’s a great basis for the discussion.
That’s called laissez faire, and it’s libertarian crap. The way things are right now isn’t just magically the best way they could be, so yes we do too so get to tinker with them. No we don’t want to draft everyone until all the numbers come out even, but we do want to get rid of obstacles, including subtle ones that take digging and research to discover. [emphasis in original]
That isn’t an accurate representation of libertarian thought. Libertarians (small-l) don’t think that the way things are right now is magically the best way they could be. Only a fool thinks we’ve reached something resembling a utopia. Problems exist. Many are significant and systemic. We need solutions to improve the world, premised for libertarians on the idea that solutions can and should aim for increased liberty and opportunity for all individuals. Sometimes, those solutions require government. The idea that libertarianism is about “anything goes” is a straw man. Libertarians (small-l) are not anarchists.
The challenge here isn’t in recognizing that something needs to be done, that “yes we do too so get to tinker with [the way things are right now]”. The challenge is that tinkering has consequences. Who tinkers? What goal do the tinkerers have? What is the scope of the tinkering? What powers will the tinkerers possess? What will the world look like during and after the tinkering? What are the standards of success for the tinkering? Does tinkering on issue X end if it meets those standards? What do we do if (i.e. when) the tinkering results in unexpected outcomes? And so on.
The danger with tinkering is that those questions are so rarely dealt with. When we use government to tinker, we most likely get permanent, unchangeable solutions to fluid problems that change or disappear. That is the libertarian concern with tinkering, not the idea that a free market would be perfect.
In the comments section to Ms. Benson’s post, this, from Giliell, professional cynic:
It’s this fucking libertarian mindset wherein, as long as it is done by private people via their own biases it’s just OK but as soon as somebody spells it out and administratively does something about it it is the end of the world, peace and democracy are coming to an end and it is a burning injustice. [emphasis in original]
My libertarian mindset is that there are different standards for how we should respond with government to what people should do and what they may do. It isn’t government’s role to make sure that no one is ever an asshole to another person. There is danger in doing something administratively.
This isn’t something simplistic like “libertarians think people are good and liberals think people are bad”. The libertarian view, as I understand it, is that we are all the same flawed, imperfect people who have the capacity to engage in problematic, damaging behavior. We each overcome these ignorant tendencies and biases to different degrees. But the reality is that government includes these same flawed, imperfect people that the private sphere contains. Because government has powers that private actors do not, there must be some standard greater than “we need a solution, this is a solution”.