For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
How libertarians can make sense for Pagans (and everyone else)
I closed the second of my open letter to Pagan libertarians with a few comments as to what is right about libertarianism. Since discussing the issue continues on this site, I want to explore libertarianism’s positive dimensions a little more. This is complex because the good is interwoven with the not very good, and the interweaving is hidden by popular words covering both, such as “individualism” and “private property.”
Along the way I will also try and make clear where we Pagans have something important to add in enriching libertarian thinking.
The libertarian principle of not aggressing peaceful people is in keeping with the Wiccan rede “an it harm none do as ye will.” And where libertarians understand their principle clearly, they end up on the right side of important issues, such as opposition to the aggressive wars we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan or to the so-called “War on Drugs.” Given that no conservatives and few liberals are clear on both these issues, and both the Democratic and Republican Parties are largely tools of corporate domination, it is easy to see why many idealistic people are attracted to libertarian positions.
But for all libertarianism’s promise, two core ideas usually lead them astray as soon as issues become more complicated than what I do in my home or in one on one exchanges with another: their concept of an individual and their concept of property. If they would ever get clear about these concepts libertarianism would be a far more powerful, intelligent, and humane position.
Libertarians argue their respect for individual rights is absolute. But as my first letter demonstrated, when libertarians try and make philosophical arguments defending their position they enter weird territory, defending voluntary slavery and the right to let your own kids starve to death. There is a reason for this weirdness.
Libertarians treat individuals as absolutely separate from one another. They ignore our own personal experience, backed up by millennia of thoughtful analysis and much scientific research demonstrating who we are is intricately interwoven with one another and with our environment. Perhaps this blindness is why they like to base everything on “the market,” because market exchanges are the kinds of interactions commonly made between total strangers. But even in the market many exchanges are not between strangers, and for most of us most of our life is spent outside the market.
Libertarians need to recognize and absorb that our individuality is one side of a coin whose other side is relationship. In this way we are like photons: when we ask ourselves some questions we answer as individuals (particles) and when we ask others we answer as socially formed beings (waves). Einstein would not have been Einstein if born on the Navajo Reservation, nor would Rolling Thunder have been a powerful medicine person if born of Italian parents in Philadelphia. What makes us most unique comes from the intersection of our individuality with our relationships, human, cultural, historical, and geographical.
As soon as we recognize both dimensions of who we are we are led to ask what are the right relationships into which we should enter with others. Surely non aggression is a part of this, but as we know from our friendships, loved ones, and even day-to-day interactions, nonaggression alone is a weak reed to build a life, sustain a society, or raise a family. It is a part to be sure, but it is not enough. It could describe a world where everyone met a person only once, and entered into a contractual exchange, a world where prostitution is indistinguishable from romantic love. Such a world is not a human world.
I believe their denial of this relational dimension of who we is what motivates libertarians’ hostility towards environmentalism and democracy, both of which emphasize us as individuals-in-relationship-with-others. To focus only on this dimension is also to lose track of what makes us fully human, but I know of no one who raises such a dismissal of our unique individuality to a virtue. Libertarians’ one sidedness makes many unable to appreciate what constitutes genuine individuality, and those who do do not get their understanding from libertarian theory.
I think it is their denial of our irreducible relatedness that has led libertarian theorists and leaders such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick and Ron Paul, to endorse the immoral and heartless conclusions in their philosophy that I described in my original post.
If they developed a two-sided appreciation of individuals, that is, an appreciation of genuine individuals instead of cartoon figures, libertarianism would also be brought into harmony with most great spiritual traditions. After all, in the most complete recognition and valuing of individuality, care becomes love, our most direct individual participation in the sacred. Love, of course, does not require us to be spiritual, but it is the relationship where it no longer matters whether we describe it as spiritual or secular.
For Pagans I think there is one more step. We generally recognize we are who we are also because of our relations with the other-than-human world. Only when libertarians abandon their particle notion of individuals will they be able even to ask, let alone eventually answer, the question of what are the most appropriate relations between us and the other-than-human-world. I tried to explore this relationship from a perspective harmonious with Pagan insights in two recent posts over at Patheos, one on nature and another on our religion’s more general implications.
With this foundation we can explore modern libertarianism’s other major failing in understanding human relationships: the nature of private property.
Libertarians rightly emphasize the role of private property in making it possible for each of us to enter into creative voluntary exchanges with others and have the material independence to live free from domination by others. Without private property there cannot be much personal freedom. In this they are correct.
But libertarians almost universally do not think very deeply about property. They assume it exists, and then sing its praises. But to start at this point guarantees we will misunderstand what property really is.
Property distinguishes what is mine from what is not mine. Robinson Crusoe alone on his island needed no property, until Friday came along. Historically Friday has always been around. So people have always needed ways to distinguish between what is mine from what is yours.
For something to become property a boundary must be defined setting it off from everything else. Sometimes this seems easy. My car has clear boundaries. Other boundaries are not so clear. I want to play my music late at night and I live in a house with neighbors who want to sleep. How loud is loud enough and at what point does it become too loud? Clearly a decision has to be made and people can sincerely disagree as to what the appropriate volume should be at any given time. Most people would prefer a rule honored by all rather than leaving it up to the people most immediately effected at the time of the problem. So cities have noise ordinances regulating property by establishing boundaries.
Consider another example: I hire someone to work for me. Just what powers do I get when I hire you and what powers do you retain when you work for me? Can I lock the doors during work hours, as was once done, or be able to strip search you at the end of the day to make sure you have stolen nothing? Should I be able to demand sexual access to you if you want to keep your job? Can I require you to attend political meetings? Do I retain ‘ownership’ of anything you learned on the job, so that you cannot take that knowledge to a competitor? At what age can you sign a binding contract with me? Effective rules over these issues differ over time and from place to place.
Even my car’s boundaries can get complex. When I drive I contribute some exhaust, a tiny bit, to smog that, under certain circumstances, can kill people and obscures the views of all. When I drive it in Wyoming no one cares. There are not enough cars to matter. When I drive it in Los Angeles, many people care. Who determines what rules should apply to my driving my car? Clearly those rules are influenced by numbers of people, climatic conditions, and the quality of my engine. Nor is this task is ever done. As people grow more closely connected in cities what was once harmless can become harmful, such as air and water pollution. New limitations on the use of property rights must be defined even as the ultimate impact of closer association generally increases our opportunities. I cannot have a bonfire at 3am in my urban back yard, but I can attend many restaurants, theaters, museums, and have a variety of employment opportunities absent in the country.
Given that rules common to all must be found, and people will disagree on the details, how do we do it? Tribes were small enough to handle this task informally in most cases. Undemocratic societies saw the strong impose the rules on the weak. But in a large society the only way ordinances, boundaries, and rules can be framed without aggressing on a peaceful person is to make the process for deciding rules fair. The only way it can be fair is if everyone affected by a decision has at some point an equal voice in its adoption. That means, logically, some kind of democratic principle has to kick in BEFORE a property right can be defined.
Simple slogans such as “defending property rights” conceal an amazing number of complex issues that can be decided in many different ways. By themselves they are almost meaningless since no one in the US opposes private property as an institution. By starting with private property, libertarians avoid all the hard problems, are able to use good but empty slogans, and often come up with nonsensical solutions to problems, as when one told me only a few years ago that if you don’t like pollution, just move, even if you lived here before it became a problem.
This brings me to my final point on how libertarians would change their outlook if they understood the words they use.
Democracy is the political recognition that we are individuals (every person has individual political rights to freedom of speech, press, organization, and the vote) and that every person is social (we decide together what the rules by which we live shall be). Those rules grow out of individuals exercising their individual political rights while seeking to discover what rules are best for them as members of a community. And we have the right to change those rules so long as we preserve democratic procedures.
Property rights are community creations defining the realm of agreements and obligations we have with one another and with what we own. So are the rules of contract. They define a realm of possible relationships we can enter into with one another and with what we own. A just community gives everyone an equal voice at some point in making those decisions. Democracy in some form is therefore the logical result of applying the nonaggression principle to determining property rights and rules of contract.
But what about government abuses? libertarians, Pagan and non Pagan alike, will argue. Don’t they matter?
Of course they matter. But what matters is what those taxes pay for and what the government does. That is what makes them either abuses or benefits. In much of Europe taxes are higher than ours partly because they pay for universal medical care. But that care is cheaper per capita when paid through taxes than what Americans pay for more or less the same services but for only a portion of the population. In terms of both costs and services many Europeans come out ahead of us. Complaining about high taxes is childish when the alternative to them is even higher bills and worse service. One can still prefer the American system for some reason, but so long as we recognize we are members of a community "high taxes" can not rationally be one of them.
Often private interests in and out of government seek to take it over for their own benefit. Such is usually the case in America today. Our Founders wrote extensively about this problem and have much wisdom to offer if we take the time to read them for their meaning rather than for sound bites. Slogans about "the state" and "big government" do not get us nearly as far.
Men and women with a lust for power and domination are always attracted to positions of leadership, and not only in government. They seek the top of any big organization hoping to fill the holes in their souls with power rather than with heart. Because power can never fill this hole their quest for more power never ends. These are perpetual problems in human life and threaten us all today. But blaming government while ignoring the private interests that dominate it at our expense often makes libertarians effective opponents of making many things better because a wiser application of democratic principles is the only principle that can guide us towards a freer and less coercive society. And they reject it.
A free society requires determining the basic rules within which we will seek our personal goals and relationships democratically. Such a society also combines our resources to accomplish what can be done better when goods are made available to all rather than provided singly, such as roads or courts. Democracy is how that society determines what these activities should be. When it goes astray, as here in the US, the solution is not to weaken democracy but to weaken the causes preventing Americans from making these decisions without bureaucracies and powerful minorities distorting them.
So yes, the libertarian nonaggression principle is valid. Yes, private property and voluntary contract are vital elements of a free society. Yes, the market is the best means anyone has ever discovered for increasing our material well-being. Yes to all of that. But to realize their potential those principles must grow out of a richer and more interdependent sense of individuality than libertarians have generally acknowledged. Once they acknowledge it they will see how the good things they praise best serve human beings only when situated within a genuinely democratic context.
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