A Libertarian Case for Social Justice

Why a Consistent Libertarianism Leans Left

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A consistent & desirable libertarian ethical philosophy is possible, and indeed, it exists: existential ethics, as articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Bouvoir, centers upon self-knowledge, personal responsibility (in the form of good-faith acceptance of one’s freedom & the responsibility that comes with it), and the maximization of the personal freedom of both oneself and others. What Sartre & Bouvoir’s work has that’s lacking in shallower but more popular attempts at libertarian ethical philosophy like Rand’s is a nuanced understanding of the impact of actually-existing power structures.

Acting as though our world is already equitable prevents the world from becoming equitable, in the same way that a poor person who acts as though he is already rich will only dig himself further into debt. A serious libertarian (as opposed to a libertarian of convenience) is invested in a more equitable world, where the freedoms he experiences are available to others, and where opportunity for advancement is there for those who take it. As a result, such a person must be very careful to avoid prefigurative politics.

It’s possible to be sheltered from the knowledge of existing inequities. Consider the notion of a ‘gentleman’ in enlightenment europe: regardless of actual income, all ‘gentlemen’ were considered basically alike in dignity & were subject to social rules built on that percieved equality (including forgiveness for certain kinds of mischef). Gentlemen helped each other out. The function of duelling was related to this status: a gentleman would only duel another gentleman, but the primary kind of insult that would trigger a duel was the suggestion that someone ought not to be considered a member of this class — in other words, demands to duel were an assertion that one belongs to the club, and accepting such a demand constituted an apology in itself for an attempt at exile. The social rules that these folks lived by ignored and ameliorated actual inequality between them in terms of access to resources, and in many cases acted to prevent members who were down on their luck from needing to perform unaristocratic tasks like working for a living.

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A libertarianism of gentlemen is easy: such a group, their resources provided by a massive underclass and their equality and freedom provided by a social contract that provides access to these resources based on need, can negotiate as though they were really equals. But, ultimately, that equality is based on charity (socially enforced). Gentlemen are provided the privilege to believe that their fragile equality is strong and their status is earned, because social norms within their community insulate them from the source of their freedom. (As Robert Anton Wilson notes, ‘privilege’ is latin for ‘private law’, and every community has its own norms for its own members.)

A libertarianism of gentlemen can easily, without any kind of malice, slide into oligarchy. Indeed, this appears to occur whenever awareness of actually-existing power imbalances is ignored. When someone with power acts as though their freedom is shared by someone who lacks it, it becomes a situation of ‘personal responsibility for thee, but not for me’: contracts that would be acceptable between true equals have hidden violence, because free choices are made based on an understanding of consequences, and one party is stuck in a permanent double-bind where (unless they are very lucky, very careful, and very persistent) even the best choice is a bad one and all choices lead to fewer choices down the road.

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This compounds: power acts as a lever to amplify the benefits of all choices, and a cushion to limit the impact of all failures, but the source of that power is the limited choices of other people, who are the source of the amplified benefits and bear the brunt of the impact of failures. Power makes it easier to accumulate more power, and it is taken by folks who have less, often in ways that are hidden or easily ignored. This is desirable to a libertarian-of-convenience (who wishes for their own personal possibility space to be maximized, even at the cost of that of others, and even when they have no justification for their privilege beyond accidents of birth), but to a serious libertarian (who desires to maximize both total choice & the choices available to the average person — to maximize human potential, human flourishing, and human freedom), this is a crime.

There’s a slogan associated with libertarianism: “my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins”. This is to say: libertarians want to maximize personal freedom to the extent that their choices do not do violence to other people. A serious and intellectually honest libertarian will recognize that power is an amplifier for violence: what constitutes a harmless prank between gentlemen could ruin the life of a servant, so a serious libertarian will take into account the situation of those around him when determining what does and does not constitute violence.

This is a difficult task. It’s much easier to assume everybody is in the same boat as you are, and one might be tempted to act this way out of laziness. But, for a serious libertarian, avoiding violence against one’s peers is imperative (even when that violence is accidental), and allowing others to become one’s equal is just as important as maximizing one’s own ability to make decisions.

This is where social justice comes in. Despite widespread misrepresentations & occasional misuse, ideas about social justice are a set of tools for attempting to understand actually-existing power structures and ameliorate their effects so that people from different walks of life can interact on an equal footing.

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Some are tools for understanding power structures: intersectionality helps us understand how different experiences interact, so that we can understand power imbalances in a more fine-grained way than simply identifying people with a single group & treating that group monolithically. Others are tools for leveling the playing field for communication: a safe space is a temporary set of rules for making honest communication possible when power imbalances would otherwise encourage people to self-censor (and safe spaces are tailored to the circumstances they are intended for: a safe space for sexual expression cannot be the same as a safe space for supporting survivors of sexual trauma, for instance, since the former explicitly allows the free expression of rape fantasies & other material that the latter must enforce social norms against). Still others are tools for allowing people with particular emotional needs to participate in conversations: trigger warnings allow people with PTSD to prepare themselves for a conversation about a sensitive subject that, were they unprepared, they might have an extreme and discussion-derailing reaction to.

All tools in the social justice toolbox are experiments, constantly being tinkered with by people who are trying to figure out the best way to maximize personal freedom in situations where doing so isn’t easy.

One does not need to agree that all these tools are effective or useful. However, a serious libertarian will consider the concerns these tools are meant to address & at least apply tools to try to address those same concerns — and any tools intended to address those concerns will be, by definition, tools of social justice. To avoid social justice is to out oneself as libertarian-in-name-only, unconcerned with the personal liberty of others.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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