Populist Libertarianism – The Quest to Disarm the Morality of the Citizen
The political dialogue in the United States is getting ever more polarized. The rise of the “tea party” republicans in 2010 was a response to many factors one certainly being a deep mistrust of the power of the state. This libertarian, populist impulse opposes any expansion of the use of state power. After arguing extensively for the use of the state to meet the needs of people for both security and welfare, Michael Walzer, in Spheres of Justice, makes a parenthetical statement, which I would like to reflect and build upon. Walzer states, “[this] point [regarding the use of state power] would hardly have to be made were it not for contemporary advances of a minimal or libertarian state, who argue that all such matters (except for defense) should be left to the voluntary efforts of individuals” (SOJ, kindle 1542)
Since 1983, when Walzer made this observation, the forward march “of the minimal state” has been steady and drastic. What we have seen in the subsequent decades, in the United States, is an “advancement” based on the maxim that “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem” (Pres. Ronald Reagan First Inaugural Address, January 20th, 1981). This idea has captured the political mind over a large segment of the American political landscape and, in many ways, has infected the entire body politic. My thesis is that this populist, libertarian ideology has resulted in great confusion with respect to the state’s moral obligation to its citizens. The effect of this ideology has been that the political process has been denied entry into many spheres where the state through political discussion is the appropriate instrument to undertake projects to meet the general and particular needs of the citizenry. Furthermore, if distribution mechanisms, other than the market, are ideologically weakened then those who monopolize money are empowered to dominate these other spheres. Using the model developed by Michael Walzer in “Spheres of Justice”, I will attempt to investigate the effects of this populist, libertarian impulse in American political life and suggest alternative distribution criterion, which are more appropriate to each given good. My aim is to convince the libertarian in all of us that the state is often the necessary instrument with which to more justly distribute key primary goods.
Applying the Walzer’s Model to a Critique of Libertarianism
To begin this analysis, I must first define libertarianism as it is being utilized in the American political discussion by its proponents. I do not think I will get much disagreement by saying libertarianism is a philosophy of government that limits government’s role to its minimum. Often this minimum is limited to the defense of the citizens from enemies within and without. Secondly, I define libertarianism as populist. By populist, I mean that it caters to the self-interests of an idealized definition of ordinary people. In its populist guise, this ideology maintains an anti-elitist stance. But because it is libertarian, this ideology serves the interests of the wealthiest Americans by undermining the power of the state to limit the dominance of money in various spheres. In this sense, populist libertarianism is a type of false-consciousness in which ordinary people champion an ideology which does not align with their own self-interests.
Why the State Comes into Being
Walzer’s depiction of the function of the state seems somewhat irrefutable. Human beings find strength in numbers. Security is the first need of the population. The state arises in order to meet this security need. Because the security needs of the population are so great and ever present, the state is granted the right to compel able-bodied men to fight. This is the fundamental social contract. Like the Hobbesian calculus, we give the state coercive power in exchange for the security of the population. For the libertarian, this limited social contract becomes a vision for the ideal state. To the libertarian, to cede to the state coercive powers other than those needed to combat these limited security needs is to grant the state tyrannical powers. But when looking at historical examples of the role of the state, we simply do not see such an arbitrary limitation of the state’s coercive powers. In other words, such an ideology is nice in theory, but, in actual practice, such limitations are unreasonable and destructive to political discourse.
Instead, Walzer does not limit the role of the state to “defense” but to “needs”. “The criterion of need becomes a critical standard” (Kindle location, 1409). Nonetheless, it must be understood that “needs are elusive” and “expansive” (Kindle location, 1394). What is meant by “elusive” and “expansive” is that each particular setting will define needs particularly. A simple example is public health. It is commonly recognized that infectious diseases are a public enemy. Therefore, in the United States there are mandatory immunizations laws which require vaccination of children prior to entrance into the public schools. Compulsory vaccination is not beyond the police powers of the state. This example shows that to limit state power to defense on the basis of a philosophic ideal provides an absurd limitation in practical application. The morality of actual cultures cannot reasonably submit to the libertarian ideal.
Nonetheless, the libertarian mantra continues to hold sway even in the realm of public health. A movement, at the grass roots level, is prevalent in the United States against compulsory vaccinations. This sentiment feeds upon a belief that the state has no right to compel an individual to take a medicine. The ideology of libertarianism is empowered by the American sentiment which idealizes individualism and a patriotism which stands up against the tyranny of the state. The self-identified American patriot feels violated when the state forces a needle in his shoulder. Even so, sentiment is not the same as moral clarity. To apply such populist sentiment to the sphere of public health is morally confused. There is no moral distinction that can be made between serving one’s country by willingly responding to a compulsory draft and willingly responding to one’s civic duties with respect to compulsory immunization. The clarification, which Walzer makes, is to set the criterion for the use of state powers at “need” and not merely “defense”. Subsequently, when the state uses its powers to meet these general needs, in this case the need for public health, the liberties of the individual will be sacrificed. The political process is essentially a practical discussion concerning what we, the citizens, decide are the needs which we are willing to use state powers to meet. The paradigm of maximizing personal liberty by limiting the state to mere defense is not beneficial to a reasonable populace.
The control of infectious diseases is an extreme example to show that the state is granted coercive powers to fight public enemies and meet general needs. Other examples might include protection from fire, protection of the environment, the regulation of pharmaceutical drugs and other consumer protections. If I take a walk around my block, I find innumerable examples where the state has used its tax authority to meet needs, which I cannot imagine any reasonable citizen would complain about. I walk on a street by a school. I see electrical power lines bringing electricity to every home. I am drinking a cup of safe drinking water. I remember as a youth having to come inside due to extreme air pollution. When I tell my children about the feeling of smog filled lungs and difficulty breathing, they find my story hard to believe. My commitment to the American way of life is not merely a commitment to procedural freedoms like freedom of the press or the right to vote or run for office, but also a thankfulness for the well-being I experience as a result of the legislative victories which have enabled us as citizens to meet our general needs in such a particularly effective manner. As citizens, our loyalties to the American political process ought not to only celebrate the past, for needs are elusive and expansive. As history unfolds, new needs arise and new challenges present themselves.
The above analysis of the role of the state has supported the application of a broad conception of the state’s coercive power in order to meet the general needs of the citizenry. In times of economic catastrophe, the needs of the population expand. The libertarian ideology seeks to limit the states response in the midst of such catastrophes. This libertarian agenda to delegitimize the role of the state to coercively extract resources from citizens of means in order to provide for citizens in need does not align with the morality of the American citizenry. By legitimizing the needs of citizens in times of economic crisis, the power of the state to use its tax authority to meet these needs is likewise legitimized.
Economic Catastrophe and Acts of God
The financial crisis of 2008 reveals additional enemies which threaten the availability of numerous necessary goods. When a hurricane ravages a coastal community leaving tens of thousands homeless, the nation provides assistance. Such an event is termed an act of God. This terminology is used to illustrate that those who suffer are not suffering on account of their own lack of character or poor choices. Hurricanes are indiscriminate. So too, an economic disaster harms individuals both severely and indiscriminately. The economic contraction of 2007-2009 resulted in the loss of 8-9 million jobs and over $6 trillion dollars in middle class housing wealth. Surely, a factory worker in California is not to blame for the decisions of a banker in New York or a policymaker in Washington. There remains controversy over the actual causes of the recession, but there surely ought to be consensus that a construction worker in San Diego or a car dealer in Iowa is being harmed by powers beyond her control. As Americans, we are averse to providing for a persons needs when their condition is self-inflicted, but unemployment during an economic catastrophe is no more self-inflicted that the damage done to a home as the result of a natural disaster. In the same way that the Federal Government declares a natural disaster in order to provide relief to victim of an earthquake in California or a flood in Missouri, so too a society can experience an economic disaster which requires drastic actions by the Federal Government.
As Walzer stated above, “this point would hardly have to be made were it not for contemporary advances of [champions of] a minimal or libertarian state”, but in fact there remains champions of just such a state. As I have shown, this libertarian ideology is not morally cohesive. Unemployment in the midst of an economic catastrophe requires a state response. It is our moral obligation to come to the rescue of our fellow citizens who suffer as the result of something that they have no power to prevent. A vigorous response to meet the needs of our neighbor citizens is a moral obligation. In order to meet these moral obligations, we act as citizens. The only means to make this response is to tax citizens of means lest we create additional hardship. What is in question then is the precise nature of the state’s response.
Having determined that our fellow citizens have legitimate needs during such an economic crisis, it is important to define their actual need. Picture a husband and father with two small children. He is an engineer by trade. During the economic crisis, the company that employed him could not get working capital. The company went bankrupt. Such a scenario, with slightly different details, happened literally millions of times during the great recession of 2007-2009. What do these men and women need? Do they need food? Yes. Do they need continued income support to pay their mortgages? Yes. Do they need dignity and the opportunity to work? Yes. What these men or women need are jobs. Having clarity with respect to our moral obligations to one another and what needs are to be met affects our policy decisions. In such situations, America has traditionally provided massive stimulus projects. The government goes to work employing millions and makes good use of the available skills and labor to invest in our nation. In such a situation, nothing is more disabling to our moral agency than the idea that “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem”.