Distilled Magazine The Art of the Possible

There are a group of people who cause me distress. These people are those who say ‘X is wrong’ and ‘X is harmful to society’, but nevertheless ‘X should be legal’. I call these people Libertarians. In any matter of social policy they interject their view: that the matter in hand should always be left to the choice of the individual. What is their basis for their belief in freedom – conceived as the idea that people should be allowed to do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the ability of others to do the same? It seems to be a naïve sort of rationalism, a descendent of the Enlightenment view of man, that people will always do what is rational and best for themselves, so that we had better not interfere. Moreover it is one of those insidious beliefs which sees its confirmation in everything. From such a perspective, the fact that someone has chosen something is already a confirmation of the fact that it was the best thing for them. Why did John buy the sweeties? “Well because he derives pleasure from the sweeties and so, as a rational agent, he sought to maximize his happiness and pleasure by buying them” the Libertarian says.

Is Libertarianism Impossible?

There are at least two flaws with the libertarian image of human decision making. The first is to suppose that people are capable of rationally weighing up what is actually beneficial for them overall, of considering the activity in all its consequences. Failures to do so sometimes arise from a simple lack of knowledge – e.g. not being aware that smoking is bad for you – hence the need for public information campaigns on various issues. However, having this sort of abstract or intellectual knowledge of a topic does not mean we have an intuitive or emotional knowledge of it, and it is only with this latter that our akrasia dries up. Everyone more or less knows what smoking does to you. But only someone who has seen a friend or relative lying in a hospital bed, coughing up blood and slowly suffocating, will understand the folly of smoking in an intuitive and emotional way that unfailingly stops them from doing it. Related to this weakness of will is our irrational attitude towards effects which are distant in time. Almost all of us would prefer a sweetie now than two sweeties in 50 years’ time. This defect in our reasoning is so common that even Utilitarianism, that ethical school which purports to make a science of morality, has in the algorithm of its Felicific Calculus the variable of Propinquity as against Remoteness. To my mind including this variable is completely unjustified. Rationally considered, if we assume tomorrow will come, why is one unit of happiness today worth more than one tomorrow?

The second, and perhaps more fundamental, flaw with this view of decision making is that it suggests that when we make choices we are actually considering our well-being and happiness. Why do we drink water? For pleasure? Because life is so plainly a joy and we want so much to perpetuate it? No. We do it on a purely instinctual basis, and any pleasure we derive from it is incidental. The causes for most of our behaviours are similarly non-rational. In many cases the cause is biological, as with drinking water. Sometimes it is from habit – I always cursorily rinse my hands after using the toilet, although I have learnt of late that this has no effect at all on bacterial hygiene. In other cases it is social; we just like to do as one does, because to do otherwise causes us great discomfort. Most of all however – credit to Schopenhauer for this insight – we do things to deal with the boredom of bare existence. Social norms and habits can modulate what exactly it is we do, but well... We have to do something. Be it getting drunk every night, smoking a cigarette every hour, or reading Thomas Hardy novels, you need to do something or other. Passing the time, rather than rationally maximising our well-being or pleasure, is the real end of almost all our leisure activities.

Is Libertarianism Desirable?

These two factors tend therefore to make our individual behaviour highly irrational. Added to these two is the general vulgarity of our capitalist age which peddles all manner of dross – drinking, internet gambling, American sitcoms, “women’s magazines” – as the nutrition-less paste with which we can fill ourselves. The result is a mess. There is however one tried-and-tested way by which we can help ourselves and each other. It isn’t perfect, and has problems of its own, which I hope to discuss elsewhere. It is called collective action, or self-government. When we are asked to sit and reflect abstractly on what is good for us personally, we tend to come up with the same results: keeping fit, eating well, socialising, doing something creative and fulfilling with our time, and so on. However, when it comes to actually doing these things we – for reasons discussed above – fall quite short of our ideals. We must constantly exercise willpower in order to avoid the bad things and attain the good things. I know I can just sit here and watch youtube all day instead of revising. There is another, indirect, means of self-control however, and that is rationally and deliberately putting something beyond your reach. For instance, if you’re a “person of size”, you can put a lock on the snack cupboard and give your wife the key. Then you won’t have a choice at all, so you will attain the right path by default. This is what it is for a democracy to ban something: we better ourselves by making a rational decision once and for all, so that we don’t have to decide anymore. Libertarianism is so corrosive to society’s wellbeing because it prevents us from taking such rational collective action and throw us all back upon our own meagre resources.

Libertarians might object that this indirect kind of self-control is infantilising because it prevents us from ever truly developing the first kind of direct self-control, which seems in some way to be intuitively more valuable. I take the point of this objection: it is indeed better morally to be a complete master of oneself and to directly resist objects of temptation. However I think it is more important again to actually abstain from such objects by any means: better to be a healthy non-smoker in a prohibitionist society, then a lung cancer patient who valiantly tried and failed the art of self-mastery. Indeed doesn’t this Libertarian objection have absurd consequences? Wouldn’t it recommend that we try to expand our powers and faculties to the utmost to maximise opportunities for self-control? For instance, doesn’t it recommend that we allow everyone to own machine guns so that the independent individuals amongst us could demonstrate their responsibility and self-mastery by not shooting a school full of children? Such thinking reminds me of the practice of women paying young escorts to seduce their husbands to test their fidelity. Of course the husband fails. But that is not a sign of prior infidelity. After all how many balding middle-aged men are randomly propositioned by blonde 23 year olds? None. And in the ordinary course of life, of how much value is the kind of self-mastery that allows a middle-aged man to resist blonde 23 year olds? Not very much.

Beware the Libertarian and his empty promises!