June 9, 2004

· Sociology

I swear I had this post ready before all this stuff about positive and negative rights. My appetite for that kind of thing isn’t terribly high, except as an opportunity to think up slogans like “Libertarianism is the Socialism of Lawyers.” But a few months ago I made a passing comment that “Libertarianism has always seemed to me to depend for its realization on features of the social structure that it officially repuditates.” There’s probably a nice theory to be built about how this is true of all programmatic ideologies for social reorganization. For now, Peter Levine sketches some sociological ideas regarding Libertarianism in particular.

Libertarians should be much more concerned than they are with political socialization … If millions of kids grow up in communities that are wealthy but intolerant of public speech, they are likely to draw the conclusion that speech is detrimental to order and prosperity. As I wrote in my last post, this is political socialization for fascism.

Libertarians are loath to restrict private contracts, even those that voluntarily restrict speech. They have a point: we aren’t free if we cannot associate in intolerant communities. But if many people choose to ban freedom within their commonly-owned private property, then they are highly unlikely to raise libertarian kids. … The great libertarian economist Frank Knight wrote in 1939:

The individual cannot be the datum for the purposes of social policy, because he is largely formed by the social process, and the nature of the individual must be affected by social action. Consequently, social policy must be judged by the kind of individuals that are produced by or under it, and not merely by the type of relations which subsist among individuals taken as they stand.

Moral: if you want libertarian policies, you need “social processes” that make people libertarians, and those policies may not arise as a result of free choices by individuals “taken as they stand.”

One of the most famous examples in the Libertarian canon is Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain case which is used to show that, even if we start everyone with the same amount of money, the free transfer of resources through contract will likely cause a society to drift towards some unequal distribution—in this case, Wilt Chamberlain being much richer than everyone else because people are willing to pay money to see him play. Other Objections to this idea notwithstanding, Levine suggests that much the same process of drift could happen to the commitment to Libertarianism itself, not because people deprive themselves or others of their rights but because over time they and their children make a series of choices that create a culture where no-one wants to be a Libertarian. The easiest way to avoid the implications of this argument is to assert that people are just born with rational self-interest built-in, together with the required substantive libertarian preferences, but there’s too much empirical evidence against the former and no plausible story about the latter.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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