Modern Liberalism: It Can Be Very Strange, Or, Don't You Know People Have Traditionally Been Slaves?


In the latest of a now apparently endless stream of generic attacks on libertarianism in more mainstream or liberal-leaning intellectual outposts, see this from Claude S. Fischer (a U Cal Berkeley sociology prof) in Boston Review.

It refreshingly headlines what is pretty much the intellectual heft of most such plaints against libertarianism: "Libertarianism is Very Strange."

Why? Is it because some of us advocate such avant-garde notions as competing private defense agencies, tort over regulatory law to keep businesses from harming people, or full liberty of drug and food consumption?

Nah, libertarianism's weirdness is deeper than that. We are truly through the rabbit hole here, my mainstream liberal friends, dealing with libertarian loons who seem to believe that people are individuals and should be treated as such!

Why, don't libertarians realize that:

For most of history, including Philadelphia, 1776, more humans were effectively property than free. Children, youth, women, slaves, and servants belonged to patriarchs; many patriarchs were themselves serfs to chiefs and lords. And selling oneself into slavery was routine for the poor in many societies. Most world cultures have treated the individual as a limb of the household, lineage, or tribe. We moderns abhor the idea of punishing the brother or child of a wrongdoer, but in many cultures collective punishment makes perfect sense, for each person is just part of the whole.

What difference does this history and anthropology make to libertarian arguments about the good life? Plenty. If libertarians would move real-world policy in their direction, then their premises about humans and human society should be at least remotely plausible; we are not playing SimCity here.

In other words, post-Enlightenment modernity is very strange, and libertarians take aspects of it so seriously it freaks me out. It isn't just that Mr. Fischer is bothered by Rothbard, Nozick, or even Rand Paul. Everything that has led us as far as we have toward modern democratic capitalism strikes him as apparently anti-human in a deep and profound sense. 

Indeed, Mr. Fischer, we aren't playing SimCity. It's a shame so much modern governance, even today, tries to pretend we are as it tries to manipulate people by force to meet the goals of the state.