Challenges for Libertarians

Pete Boettke has an essay on “Fearing Freedom” in the latest Independent Review. In an ungated earlier version, he writes,

The problem that confronts the modern classical liberal, Buchanan (2005) postulates, is not the managerial socialism of the 20th century, nor even the Nanny State of paternalistic socialism, but the desire on the part of the population to remain in the infantile state of demanding a parent to protect them from the vagaries of life and provide them with economic security.

This is an interesting idea to play with. On the one hand, I think there is a lot of truth to it. Recall that George Lakoff, in Moral Politics, says that progressives believe that government should act as a “nurturant parent.” He contrasts this with what he calls the conservative’s “strict father” model of the state.

On the other hand, I am not sure that we can use this idea in everyday political arguments. Nobody is going to say, “Oh, yes, you’re right. I have wanted to remain in an infantile state, and now I see the error of my ways.”

I also do not think it will work to say that the state is a bad parent. Most people do not think that the failings of their parents are enough to justify running away from them or denying them respect. Even if you get somebody to agree that the state is a bad parent, they are more likely to hope that the state can become a better parent than to say that they want to weaken the state/parent.

One of my favorite ideas, competitive government, comes across in this metaphor as though it means competitive parents. Nobody thinks that the way to solve the problem of bad parents is to introduce competition into the process and let you choose your parents.

At an intellectual level, of course, we can try to attack the analogy between the state and parents. But it me be difficult to dislodge the analogy at a gut level.

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12 Responses to Challenges for Libertarians

  1. John Thacker says:

    “Nobody thinks that the way to solve the problem of bad parents is to introduce competition into the process and let you choose your parents.”

    Well, plenty of kids think that the way to solve the problem of bad parents (from their perspective) is to introduce competition into the process and choose which parent to go to, or play them against each other.

  2. Matt C says:

    How about the state as a God substitute?

    It is a little glib to say that as Christianity dies, it is getting replaced by state-worship, but I think it’s at least partly true. We don’t have a lot of the old social institutions any more. Christianity is dying, stable long term neighborhoods are gone, the extended family is dead, the nuclear family is dying.

    What’s left? Employers, and the state.

    Some of the remarks I see on the internet from social activists are downright disturbing. Just as nasty, zealous, and self righteous as the worst of the televangelists in the 80s/90s.

  3. Michael P says:

    Accepting the analogy that government can play a role like a parent is, if not accepting an infantile rôle for adults, at the least relegating them to the rôle of irresponsible children. Some of us hold the old-fashioned and perhaps hopelessly bourgeois notion that adults should be responsible for themselves.

  4. sam says:

    The challenge for libertarians is this:

    People are simply not adapted to freedom. Some people want to be masters, and most want to be slaves. The desire to submit to higher authority is strong, and those who cast off their religion will quickly desire to submit to the state.

    There are very few people in this world who value freedom. Those who would trade liberty for safety are the overwhelming majority.

    • andrew' says:

      The challenge for libertarians is to internalize the costs from those people. If the government can really provide pareto improvement then they don’t need me to bail them out.

  5. Foobarista says:

    Ultimately, this comes down to definitions of “freedom”. For many, freedom means having a “good time” without consequences, as they are aware that a progressive government effectively removes the penalties and expenses imposed by “good time”.

    In this sense, libertarians are killjoys who tell people “go ahead and party all you like, but I’m not going to help clean up your mess”.

  6. Foobarista says:

    The analogy between the state and parents is ancient to the point of being Jungian. There’s a reason kings are called “Sire”, and the names of primary gods in polytheistic or singular gods in monotheistic religions are rooted in ancient words for “father” in numerous languages. Ancient philosophies from Confucius onward argue that Heaven, the State, and the Family are only well-functioning when they’re run “symmetrically”. These philosophies go back to the very first states that developed when humans developed agriculture and quit being hunter-gatherers. Even language itself is against you in many cultures; the word for “nation” in Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean is (国家 or Guo Jia in Mandarin).

    • Foobarista says:

      Not sure why the posting ate my last sentence, although I guess it didn’t like the brackets. Guo Jia literally means “Country Family”, and has the same meaning in these languages…

      • andrew' says:

        Supply or demand driven? I can understand why government would market itself as parent. Do people really believe it?

        • Foobarista says:

          Yes, they do. Talk to anyone of a political bent in China or Japan, and they’ll immediately whip out parent and family analogies when talking about government and its operations in society.

  7. andrew' says:

    Well the number one job of parents is to create independent adults. So fine.

    • andrew' says:

      Or this to keep in mind first: govt is not a parent because…its not a parent. Other peoples delusions don’t necessarily give me a crisis.

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