Stephen Davies’ Libertarianism

by Benjamin Studebaker

I went to an interesting talk today given by Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British free market think tank, in favour of the libertarian position. In the past, I have not been particularly kind to the libertarian position, both in its theory and in the practical policies that result from it. Davies did, however, present the libertarian position in an interesting fashion. Whereas usually libertarianism is derived from some foundational larger philosophical theory (some libertarians are right utilitarians, natural rights theorists, egoists, and so on), Davies wishes to divorce libertarianism from its wider philosophical context and consider it on its own, irrespective of which foundational theory it sits upon. In the past, some of my criticisms of libertarianism have been themselves criticised for over-relying on problems with foundational theories rather than considering the planks of libertarianism in isolation. Today, I shall look at libertarianism as presented by Davies and see where it leads me.

Davies identifies three core elements in libertarian thought:

  1. Power and coercion are bad and ought to be minimised.
  2. People have individual projects which they should be allowed and/or enabled to pursue.
  3. The state should be anti-perfectionist and avoid making judgements about what constitutes a good life for its citizens.

From these three ideas, Davies derives the views traditionally associated with libertarianism–laissez faire economics, social liberalism, and the night watchman state more broadly (i.e. a state that secures us against direct harm but otherwise does little else). In order for Davies’ libertarianism to be wrong, either one or more of his first principles must be wrong, or the connection made between those principles and the libertarian policies must itself be misplaced. Let us first examine the truth value of the first principles.

Power and Coercion are Bad

It is true that no one (except for the masochists) enjoys being coerced. However, there are lots of things that people do not like or do not enjoy that are nonetheless sometimes necessary–as the libertarians themselves admit, for most of them are not explicitly anarchist and accept a minimally coercive state. To make the badness of coercion the central point of one’s philosophy is seemingly to argue that it is one of the very worst things that can happen to a person. This I would dispute.

We have, all of us, been coerced at some time or another by someone. Coercion begins at birth–eventually, we are forced to leave the uterus, whether this is our desire or not. From then on we are more or less constantly coerced by our parents throughout our childhoods. The thing is, when these coercions prevent us from experiencing an evil, we usually do not mind them very much.

Imagine for instance that you are a small child about to touch a fire, when your hand is grabbed away by your mother and you are scolded and told that touching the fire will hurt you and that you should not do it. The coercion–the grabbing, the scolding–may not themselves have been pleasant, but it is certainly better to have been grabbed and scolded than to have been burned. This coercion is direct, and it’s not even about preventing us from harming other people–it is totally paternalistic. All the same, we are usually glad for having been coerced, because we can see that the coercion prevented us from experiencing a harm that was worse than the coercion itself. This is significant–if we ourselves come to see that the one coercing us really was preventing us from doing an evil to another or from doing evil to ourselves, our tendency is to see that coercion as having been preferable to its absence.

In politics, the harms are usually harder to convince people of the veracity of, but are often much worse than being briefly burnt. If, say, a given financial transaction is conducive to the causing of economic crisis and recession, a great deal of long-term suffering is likely to result for a very large number of people in the absence of coercion. The tendency for a substantial number of people not to see this harm in advance, or to be sceptical of it does not diminish its veracity or the damage it will do. Unlike the fire incident, where it is easy to see what would have happened had the coercion not occurred, in the economic case it is often very difficult to know precisely how bad the consequences of the absence of coercion would have been, so people have a tendency to minimise them once avoided. It stands to reason that, if it is the case that, were one to be fully conscious of the impending harm, one would reasonably consent to the coercion, coercion is acceptable even when the one coerced is not conscious of that harm. While the displeasure of the individual at being coerced should be accounted for when we decide if coercion will bring about a better outcome, it should not be assumed that the negative impact of said coercion is likely to be very large. After all, if a child will submit to it to avoid a burning, an adult can submit to it to avoid a recession.

People Should be Allowed/Enabled to Pursue Projects

I broadly agree with this stipulation with the caveat that the pursuit of said projects cannot come at the cost of other people–it must abide by John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, in which liberties are checked by the state’s responsibility to prevent harms. Libertarians broadly agree with my caveat, but their tendency is to interpret “harm” too narrowly. In addition to physical and immediate harms, the state has an obligation to prevent negative externalities produced by people’s economic activity and life choices. The state is obliged to prevent recessions, public ignorance, inefficiency, the augmentation of its own social expenditure, and so on in so far as it has the knowledge and means to do so.

The State Should Be Anti-Perfectionist

I broadly agree with this stipulation, but again with the caveat that this permissiveness but not pass into the realm of permitting people to harm not only themselves, but wider society, in accordance with the harm principle understood broadly. Libertarians again too often interpret the harm principle too narrowly, and so make no effort to decrease or limit behaviours that have socially deleterious effects. People should be discouraged (in ways that are effective) from say, drug use, not because the state need intervene for their own good, but in so far as their use of drugs makes their healthcare more costly to the state or inhibits their economic productivity so as to diminish the production, efficiency, and progress achieved by the civilisation as a whole.

In effect, my issues to this point can be summarised in twain:

  1. I object to the libertarians’ overestimation of the negative consequences that result from coercion.
  2. I object to the libertarians’ overly narrow view of harms.

Beyond this, my disagreement with the libertarians becomes a matter of empiricisms–there are many cases in which I, as an economic Keynesian, see needs to use the state’s power to prevent harms and enable goods where some libertarians dispute the real-world efficacy of those tools (stimulus, regulation, redistribution, and so on down the line).