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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.

Individuals

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.

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

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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Gus diZerega is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca. He studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

Dr. diZerega has published widely on the social sciences in the academic press as well as on spirituality.  His second book Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources.  His third, coauthored with Philip Johnson, is Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue. His art frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter.

DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing.

His next book, Faultlines: The Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine, will appear in 2013. 

Comments

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Thursday, 18 April 2013

    Democracy is two wolves and a chicken voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is the chicken having a right not being subject to the tyranny of the majority.

  • D. R. Bartlette
    D. R. Bartlette Friday, 03 May 2013

    Right - that's what the Bill of Rights is for - so that the "tyranny of the majority" doesn't violate anyone's rights. Or so the theory goes ... it's been a long struggle, and it's not over yet...

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Friday, 03 May 2013

    Yes, D.R. the current majority is working hard to obliterate the Bill of Rights. It has been a long struggle, but they are winning by ratchet increments until not much is left of liberty.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 05 May 2013

    Utter and complete piffle. The majority of Americans is routinely ignored on all sorts of major issues where the desires of banks, corporations, and their alliance with the military takes precedence. That is the true bipartisanship in American politics today.

  • D. R. Bartlette
    D. R. Bartlette Monday, 06 May 2013

    Preach it, brother! Blessed BE!

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 19 April 2013

    I go to some lengths to give practical examples that are thereby open to rebuttal on their merits. You give an old joke (I first heard it probably 40 years ago) that is impermeable to any critical comment except to say it demonstrates the inability or unwillingness of the person making it to engage in rational discussion.

  • Natasha Petrova
    Natasha Petrova Friday, 19 April 2013

    What you say about Libertarianism always makes a lot of sense to me, but I suppose I have an emotional attachment to the ideology. An attachment that is difficult to dislodge. My hope is that left-libertarian ideology can largely address your concerns ~ if not entirely and ergo be influenced to rethink how to apply core Libertarian principles in a more realistic way. Kevin Carson supports decentralized democratic organization that strikes me as akin to your proposals about contractual federalism with democratic cooperatives.

    "Police, utilities, health and welfare services should all be devolved to the community or neighborhood level, and run whenever possible on a cooperative basis with control by the "customer." At the same time every population unit of a few thousand people--small towns and urban neighborhoods--should organize government on the pattern of direct democracy, with public meetings and boards of selectmen, to exercise control of such government functions."

    http://mutualist.org/id5.html

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 19 April 2013

    I like many of your points Natasha. The big task we face in creating a freer world is how to design democratic societies that magnify their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Long ago Jefferson wanted every county to be a self-governing unit and there is much to his thinking I like. For him and other Founders juries were to be like small legislatures-for-a-day where every citizen could rule not only on guilt, but have the chance to judge the law in that instance. It would provide the ultimate veto against out-of-control legislatures. "Jury nullification" is a dim echo of that principle. The task is how to shape these similar values to modern conditions. Happily one need be neither Pagan nor Christian nor Atheist nor anything else to see the desirability of a more humane world, so I think the task is doable once we clear our heads of ideological cobwebs.

  • Natasha Petrova
    Natasha Petrova Saturday, 20 April 2013

    Thanks for the kind words! Gus

    One issue with the kind of decentralization advocated by Carson is how it would work out in socially or culturally conservative areas. The central government can provide a check on oppressive local power or authority. That's why a free society requires a cultural-philosophical-economic-political shift as opposed to change on one level.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 20 April 2013

    The irony of the strong libertarian position, left or right, is that in their system 'voluntary' contract trumps all other rights whereas in a democracy political rights such as freedom of speech and rights of citizenship, such as freedom of religion, trump contractual rights, so majorities in a co-op or a authoritarian landlord can not dictate such things to others, excepting in very intimate living situations like sharing a house with a renter.

    As you notice over here when they do respond to these kinds of problems libertarians do so by telling little stories about wolves and chickens. ;-)

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Saturday, 20 April 2013

    There seem little value in exchanging personal insults with someone who prefers pseudo-intellectual straw men to real discussion, and who apparently doesn't get the concept of metaphor. There is no place to begin. A complete waste of time.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 20 April 2013

    Nice try. Now try an argument sometime.

  • D. R. Bartlette
    D. R. Bartlette Friday, 03 May 2013

    This is probably the best "answer" to libertarianism I've read. I've always been appalled by the libertarian blindness to the very obvious fact that we live in a *society,* not as isolated individuals. Thanks for a wonderful, thoughtful post.

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