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 — 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.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John Lemon says:

    I also sense a bit of postmodernist reductionism in Drum’s comments. He wants a definition of “fist”? Yes, I know that this is in the rhetorical sense, but come on. Postmodernism puts all terms up for definition and debate, seeing everything (and I assume postmodernism itself) as a social construct. Following this logic to its conclusion, common sense falls away from policymaking and we end up with endless debates about semantics. Policymaking becomes almost arbitrary, with no firm starting point and no well-defined end.

  2. Steven says:

    I have blogged some stuff on this here.

  3. Kevin Drum says:

    Yeah, I meant “fist” metaphorically. “Fist” is simply the thing causing the harm, and that can be hard to define. Is the exhaust on my car a “fist”? Maybe….

  4. Steve says:

    Yeah, I meant “fist” metaphorically. “Fist” is simply the thing causing the harm, and that can be hard to define. Is the exhaust on my car a “fist”? Maybe….

    No it is not a fist, in that the danger it poses is extremely slight, at least from a single car and supposing somebody is not locking you in a garage with the motor running.

    What car exhaust is though, is an externality. That is something that has an impact (positive or negative) on your overall well being.

    As I have argued on the presence of an externality is, I think, a necessary condition for government action, but not a sufficient condition.

    Your “demand” that libertarianism provide some sort of objective decision rule in deciding such issues unfair because as you note no ideology provides an objective decision rule as you note. Libertarianism provides a point of view; one where the default is that the government should stay out until sufficient reason for government involvement can be shown.

    Also I caution about confusing libertarianism with Objectivism.

  5. Steve says:

    Hmmm messed up that link and thus the paragraph as well (should’ve used the preview button). The paragraph should read:

    As I have argued on my blog the presence of an externality is, I think, a necessary condition for government action, but not a sufficient condition.

    There used the preview button this time…duh.

  6. This is a bit of a tangent, but quoting John Stuart Mill with respect to political liberty, especially to a libertarian version of political liberty, misses the point of *On Liberty*. What Mill is after is an expansion of the idea of liberty to encompass “the moral coercion of public opinion,” by which he means the application of noncoercive social pressure (such as boycotts and blacklists) to punish people for non-harmful conduct.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Robert,

    JS Mill was a founding Utilitarian and the Harm Principle seems perfectly germane here. Steven Taylor quotes the relevant portion in his post (linked via TrackBack above). Mill talks about collective action, of which representative govt is surely one manifestation.