WHERE IDEOLOGY MEETS THE ROAD
Kevin Drum takes Eugene Volohk to task for his libertarianism:
A couple of days ago Eugene Volokh wrote a long post about the “Harm Principle.” This is the principle that’s roughly summed up by the famous libertarian aphorism, “Your right to swing your fist stops where my face begins.”
This is fine, as long as you can define “swing,” “fist,” “stops,” “face,” and “begins.” But that’s a lot of definitions, isn’t it? Eugene uses his post to argue that libertarian principles don’t necessarily mandate sexual liberty because, after all, sex can sometimes cause harm to other third parties.
This is a good example of why I’ve never been able to take libertarianism seriously: it simply doesn’t provide any meaningful real-world guidance for what governments should and shouldn’t do. Once you agree that “harm” also means “potential harm” or “harm done to third parties down the road” or “unintentional harm” or Ã¢€” well, or anything, really, then you no longer have a principle at all. Virtually every human action there is can plausibly be supposed to cause harm of some kind, which in turn means that we are left to judge policies by balancing their effects on personal liberty with the protections they provide us against harmful behavior by others. Which is exactly what Eugene proposes.
But that’s just what everyone does, liberals and conservatives alike. So exactly how does libertarianism help us make these decisions?
Ideological frameworks provide a useful starting point. “Your right to swing your fist stops where my face begins” doesn’t solve much, but at least it provides a loose arena for the debate. When a policy is proposed, the boundaries of the argument are “How does this harm others?” and “Is stopping this harm worse than the limitation on personal liberty required to do so?” It’s something.
Further, as Volokh’s post illustrates, there are all manner of “libertarians” just as there is a wide range of belief under the general rubric “liberal” or “conservative.” Still, these competing belief systems provide, if nothing else, a common language for debate. The Harm Principle would be totally unpersuasive in a society governed by Sharia, Stalinism, or Fascism because they would reject its premises outright. The fact that libertarians will disagree among themselves about exactly how it should be applied is interesting, but agreeing on it as a starting point is a huge step toward consensus.