Confessions of a former libertarian

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In my understanding, being a philosopher entails openness to the possibility of fundamentally reconsidering one’s views in the face of compelling evidence, cogent [counter-]arguments or further reflection. It is a matter of honesty (parrhesia) and consistency with the task of approximating the truth. No opinion can be treated as a priori robust to scrutiny. Bestowing such an exalted status to any given position would amount to the formation of a dogma of sorts; the perception that a given proposition or set thereof is absolute — and dogma is not the kind of output one would come to expect from consistent research.

For several years I have identified myself with libertarianism. In my early twenties, I started off with a brand of austrolibertarian, Misesian-Rothbardian anarchocapitalism. Its shortcomings in economic methodology and analysis notwithstanding, it wasn’t long before I realised the contradictions of that worldview, in particular how a hard-line, quasi-religious devotion to private property would result in actual tyranny by effectively placing a rigid constraint on liberty in its broader political sense. Proudhon’s views on property certainly helped me recognise the deleterious implications of the propertarian ideology.

I switched to a left-leaning strand of libertarianism, one that was pro-market yet anti-capitalist, communitarian though not communist (for a primer see Markets Not Capitalism). What appealed to me in that intellectual milieu was the broader notion of “violence” it adopted. It emphasised that oppression, power and control were inherent not only to the state, which anarchists consider outright immoral, but also to social norms and institutions, such as those that foster, normalise and promote racism, segregation, patriarchy etc.

Though I still find some useful ideas in the libertarian corpus of thought, which may or may not be specific to it, such as the general egalitarian agenda, the end of racism and multifaceted discrimination, the diversification of authority, I can no longer justify them in terms of their compatibility with an overarching commitment to free will. Whatever value they have does not derive from the workings of some romanticised, transcendent free personal agency. Their worth qua instantiations of Justice is to be traced in their function, their capacity to remove arbitrary political, economic, social, interpersonal asymmetries that are otherwise engendered and maintained by prejudices and misunderstandings.

Belief in free will can have a powerful grip on the imagination. You are, you think, whoever you strive to be. Your existence, the realisation of your self, this much-vaunted self, is solely your doing. And, oh, how much you think you deserve all the accolades when you do something praiseworthy!

The superficialities of daily experience do provide an impression of free agency: we can, for instance, choose whether to type this or that. We believe that the very presence of choice, the possibility of pursuing an alternative course of action if so desired, makes manifest our capacity to act unencumbered, without having to conform to the natural forces—the constraints—of cause and effect. While such inference may be plausible, it is largely inadequate when considered in conjunction with the full array of natural, nominal, necessary and contingent factors that are in operation.

There are several external conditions that influence one’s personhood. From the day we are brought into this world, we are being determined by things exterior to us. There is growing scientific evidence that human action is driven by various biological functions that have to do with impersonal forces, such as chemical reactions. Though neuroscience and the concomitant research may still have ways to go, there are clear signs pointing towards a more or less materialistic account of agency.

As for the nominal aspect of it, we are immersed in a certain culture or sub-culture, whose peculiar amalgamation of language, norms, values and other particularities we inherit. We belong to a given social class without our consent and are at first limited to a specific range of economic prospects. Our parents, relatives, the place we live in are not of our choosing. Civilisation is antecedent to the individual, remaining outside their scope of action, while every civilisation renders possible a set of actual and potential states of affairs that decisively shape the persons within them. The decontextualised, self-created individual who is moulded in their own image independent of causality, probability, social-cultural and any other external condition, the much-touted agent of libertarianism, is a chimera.

This is not to claim that such things as, say, education or the political process in general are utterly pointless since “everything is predetermined”. That would be a crass misinterpretation of the skeptical argument. When referring to free will or lack thereof, we are concerned with the fundamentals of agency and responsibility/accountability. If people are indeed free, and if by “freedom” we mean that individuals do ultimately mould their person as per their own volition, then they must also be accountable for their actualised decisions. It follows that absolute freedom entails absolute responsibility and so if mischievous behaviour is to be punishable, absolute punishment must ensue.

To make the point more relatable, a version of this mode of thinking about action and retribution can be found in the religious myth of Adam and Eve, who were created by God as free agents and who opted to exercise their freedom in an otherwise impermissible way, resulting in their absolute punishment, which was none other than their—and their posterity’s—expulsion from the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, it is suggested, deserved their penalty much like the sinful deserve the continuous agony that is Hell.

I no longer am a libertarian. I find the strong commitment to its principles to be irreconcilable with science and philosophical inquiry. Though I was already sensing the various tensions in that worldview, my belief in free will has been proven to me as inadequate by scientific breakthroughs and, more generally, the kind of “bigger picture” view of agency that skeptical philosophy adopts.

These are the kind of issues that philosopher Gregg D. Caruso (@GreggDCaruso) has been studying. His work has been a catalyst in my recent change of mind. Here’s an excerpt from his paper Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism:

We need to admit that luck plays a big role in what we do and the way we are. It’s my proposal that we do away with the pernicious belief in free will—and with it the myth of the “rugged individual,” the “self-made man,” the causa sui. If what I have argued here is correct, the concepts of free will and desert-based moral responsibility are intimately connected with a number of other potentially harmful beliefs — e.g., just world belief (JWB) and right wing authoritarianism (RWA). It’s time that we leave these antiquated notions behind, lose our moral anger, stop blaming the victim, and turn our attention to the difficult task of addressing the causes that lead to criminality, poverty, wealth-inequality, and educational inequity.

Here is a video presentation of the professor’s views. This is all from my part. Thank you for reading!