Wednesday, August 18, 2010

No libertarian impulses after all

I used to think I was torn between libertarianism and a moderate communitarianism (closer to Scandanavia than the United States, without going the full distance). It seems, on deeper reflection, that I have misidentified one of the poles.

I understand libertarianism as the stance according to which the state ought to take care of national defense and enforcement of voluntary contracts, and that's it. What appealed to me in this scheme is that I thought it respected negative rights, while denying that there are positive rights (where having a negative right to x means that if you have x, then no one has a right to take x away from you; while having a positive right to x means that if you lack x, then others are obligated to provide you with x). I have strong intuitions that resonate with that. Although I generally think far more highly of people who take care of others, than those who do not, the notion that it is permissible to forcibly redistribute resources does not sit right with me, at least half of the time, no matter how selfish the victims of redistribution might be.

So far, so good, except that the stance on rights I have described is not (assuming I have understood it correctly) libertarianism. Mandatory contributions to national defense or a contract enforcement system seem to me just as suspect as welfare or a national health care plan—if I think I'm strong or smart enough to survive on my own, and don't want anyone else's help, why should I be forced to help maintain even this bare structure libertarians want? Libertarianism does accept a positive right after all—the right to have one's own negative rights defended by third parties. But once the door to positive rights is cracked open, I don't see how one can shut out myriad other rights—like a right to decent health care—that libertarians would deny.

The upshot is that real poles that tear my political intuitions apart are not moderate communitarianism and libertarianism, but moderate communitarianism and anarchism. This should not surprise me, given my predilection for the much-maligned Wolff, but it does.

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