Philosophy of Liberty

Presentation on life, liberty, and property

This is a Flash animation that is particularly useful for those who are new to political philosophy, and especially to libertarian thought.

Of course, I have a few problems with this.

(1) No God, only many gods. There are two strands of libertarian thought. One that is rooted in the idea that we all have innate rights (a utilitarian perspective), and the other that we all have innate rights guarenteed to us by God (a natural law perspective).

(2) Value and necessity. When you get into the presentation, there is a moment where it compares the free association of property, namely that if I give you a product of my labor, then you will compensate me with something – ideally of equal value. What is not explained here is that sometimes different things (art, music, literature) have far different values than others (water, food, energy). Are we obligated to set a fair price for our labor? Our products? This presentation doesn’t address this problem.

Furthermore, what of scenarios where we trade our labor for our time (life) or enter into contracts (liberty)? Do we violate some aspect of our humanity? Or are these contracts where we submit our authority to others natural?

(3) The initiation of force. For starters, in general I believe in the principle of non-coercion. However, I do not believe that libertarians (particularly the ones of a utilitarian sort) understand or embrace what coercion really is. For instance, if I need food and water, I must work. Is that coercive? The situation is not, but what if in order to eat and drink you must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

Is that coercive? According to utilitarian ethics, it is not because it is a freely chosen arrangement short of slavery. According to natural law ethics, it is indeed coercive. What’s more, natural law ethicists would have the courage to call such a situation immoral, whereas utilitarians would not.

Most libertarians today would classify “coercion” as war, simply because it’s the most obvious example. Others would use goverment action such as policing, taxation, and regulation as examples of coercive behavior, but this is where utilitarians and natural law adherents part ways.

Laws are designed to keep bad people from doing bad things to good people. So regulation prohibits someone from demanding an 18 hour workday for bread and water. Taxation provides protection from invaders and lends to the proper protection of society. Policing keeps bad people from harming good people, and exacting justice when they do.

Utilitarians would see this as coercive behavior. Natural law adherents would not, and there is a reason why. . .

(4) Who’s #1? At the very beginning of this presentation, the argument is made that “self-ownership” means that you own yourself. No one else has a right to “you”. Utilitarians see this as a natural decision. Natural law proponents argue otherwise. You are a steward of “you”. God owns you, created you, and properly orders you and everything else.

This is why in a society, laws can be made that foster good conduct (whereas a utilitarian would see this as coercion).

Of course, natural law adherents would argue there is such a thing as excessive policing, excessive taxation, and excessive regulation. All three are inherently bad things, but they are a violation of what society should be – a virtuous mean between anarchy and tyrrany.

THEREFORE, the strengths of the natural law position over the utilitarian position are shown. Utilitarianism has a dangerous fallacy in that it can lead directly towards objectifying human beings (i.e. turning people into tools or property in the pursuit of more property) rather than enhancing or fostering liberty. That’s what societies do – they foster and protect the liberty we have.

Utilitarianism also has a very dangerous habit of confusing liberty with license. Liberty isn’t the ability to do as one pleases; liberty is the ability to do as one ought. The freedom to choose that route is where ideas of God, vocation, and value come into play once again, but that’s another tutorial for a different day. . .

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