Thursday, May 17, 2012

Do libertarians believe in intrinsic values?

There is a video on YouTube called "What's wrong with libertarianism?" (I won't dignify it with a link, since the author has disabled comments.) The video is a large collection of the author's views on libertarianism. The author makes a lot of seemingly self-evidently absurd statements about what libertarians supposedly believe. In the manner of: "libertarians believe that it's ok to eat babies; libertarians believe in animal cruelty". When the listener hears such statements, it should be obvious to him that libertarians are at best a confused and at worst an evil bunch. The problem is: every statement in that video is either outright fallacious or a misinterpretation.

One straw-man statement in particular stood out, because many of my friends make similar statements about libertarians (and free-marketeers in general):

"Libertarians don't believe that things have intrinsic values. Libertarians think that just because something is unprofitable on the markets, it has no right to exist. Therefore, libertarians are against the government taxing people to pay for certain projects, like art, science, etc."

Is that true? Let's see:

"Libertarians don't believe things have intrinsic values." I think this statement is wrong.

I think libertarians do believe that things have intrinsic values. For instance, I believe Jewish education has intrinsic value. Jewish books have intrinsic value. They are not like salad; they don't have value because someone likes them; they have value intrinsically.

What libertarians are realistic about, however, is that every person's view of what things' intrinsic values are is different. I may think Jewish books have intrinsic value, but you may disagree. You may think that Salman Rushdie's books have intrinsic value, but I may disagree. My father-in-law may think that golf magazines have intrinsic values, and I may disagree, while he disagrees with me on the intrinsic value of Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism.

Next, having realized that people disagree on the value of things, Libertarians believe that it is wrong for people to coerce each other to pay for things they don't personally consider valuable. (I realize that to some people this concept may not be self-evident. I will address the question of why that's the case in a later post, iyH.)

It is wrong for me to coerce you to pay for Jewish books if you disagree they are valuable. And if you agree they are valuable, but you're a Litvish Jew, it's wrong for me to coerce you to pay for Tanya, if you don't want to. Just like it's wrong for a Litvish Jew to coerce me to pay for a biography of a certain rosh yeshiva from Bnei Brak, if I consider that book worthless.

Just like it's wrong for me to coerce you personally, it's wrong for me and 51% of our mutual neighbors to coerce you collectively. What's the difference? Just because I got the mob to agree with me doesn't mean that my actions are good. They are either good, in and of themselves, or not. (Which brings out a point: democracy is basically an implementation of the logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum on a societal scale.)

Which brings me to the next part. "Libertarians think that just because something is unprofitable on the markets, it has no right to exist." I would say that this is a misinterpretation of what libertarians believe.

They believe anything that doesn't violate people's rights has a right to exist. The question is: who's going to pay for it? If something is unprofitable, that simply means that not enough people in the society value it. Or, if they value it, they don't want to put their money where their mouth is. Perhaps they value it, but want someone else to pay for it. (That's usually the case with the "progressives".)

But then, going back to the first point, what right do I have to force someone to pay for something that only I value? I think portraits of the Lubavitcher Rebbe painted by a particular artist are valuable. But not enough people in the city agree with me (or at least, not enough people are willing to pay for them). What next? Why do I have a right to coerce them to support an artist who paints the portraits? Or, let's say, if 51% of the city agrees that they are valuable, but 49% disagrees, do the former have a right to coerce the latter?

If you go through every point made in that video, you can similarly see how each of them is a straw-man argument. Unfortunately, the video is actually a good representation of what most people think about libertarians and libertarianism. Even those who are sympathetic to libertarians usually make stunted version of libertarian arguments, especially when compared to the neo-socialist arguments.

Homework assignment: try to figure out why this statement is a straw-man argument: "While liberals argue that we should help people, libertarians argue that each person should have a choice how to spend his money. Each group values different things."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing that video, and laughing at that guy. Good post. Thanks for giving me more material to back up my Libritarian beliefs.