Free Minds & Free Markets

On Liberty & License

Yes, individual liberty is a very fine thing, one of the very finest even. But order is also a very fine thing; and justice; and morality; and civility. AH of these fine things have to be accommodated, one to another, in such a way as to "make sense" to the citizens of a society. —Irving Kristol, Public Interest, Winter 1971.

It is only on the basis of rational selfishness—on the basis of justice—that men can be fit to live together in a free, peaceful, prosperous, benevolent, rational society. —Ayn Band, The Virtue of Selfishness.

With the publication in 1974 of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the debate on rights and justice has assumed a public dimension and intensity resembling the reaction to Ayn Rand's first raids into the territory of established political philosophy. Again, the doctrines of compulsory altruism are challenged, and again, the rejoinders are convincing only to the converts.

The "liberal" establishment is faced with Nozick's quest for the minimal state, and the querist shocks the egalitarian by arguing that everyone is entitled to everything gained by a just process. "From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen" (p. 160). In Nozick's scheme of "entitlement" the government may not seize the property one has acquired justly—without violating anyone's Lockean rights—and it would have no authority to "redistribute" that which has been lawfully earned. Government would carry out its only proper function of providing security for life and liberty, peace and prosperity. To Nozick's book, Newsweek delivered the compliment: "at heart a shrewd defense of laissez-faire and a theoretical buttress for the growing libertarian movement" (March 31, 1975).

The liberal establishment's defense against Nozick has been porous thus far. Its advocates reel in embarrassment. George Kateb, writing for The American Scholar (Winter 1975/76) admits that he "could never win an argument" with Nozick or "tell him something he hadn't already thought of" and concedes that Nozick's "faculties of reasoning and imagination are rare; his learning is enormous and interconnected." What he is quite willing to do, nevertheless, is to attack his libertarian adversary—emotionally!

The issue is, of course, the welfare state and its unequivocal rejection by Nozick and other libertarians. For example, Nozick holds that no one may be compelled to support the (supposedly) needy. The liberal is, of course, not only convinced that "we are obliged to respond to suffering" but is prepared to send in the militia to have this alleged obligation enforced. On top of it all, Kateb, with his fellow intuitionist "liberals," simply asserts an obligation, adding explicitly that "it would be a mistake to believe that the assertion had to be backed up with reasons, that it needed philosophical justification."

With this refusal to establish an obligation, contemporary "liberalism" shows its utter moral bankruptcy, and with its proclamation that no proof is required, its philosophical poverty is confessed as well. A party hack in a totalitarian state could not have expressed better the individual's subjugation through irrational collective arbitrariness.

The liberal readily admits that what lies behind the present "liberal and leftist economic policies" is a passion—as Kateb puts it, the "passion…to remedy or alleviate or prevent the poverty, the misery of millions of people." With the likes of Adolf Hitler, who also worked by intuition and gut passion for the greater good of humanity, the liberal removes himself from the realm of rational political and moral discourse. And so his opposition to the libertarian's stance can become effective, not through persuasion, but only through brute force. He is thus not simply an adversary or even an opponent, but an enemy!

Irving Kristol is not known to be a liberal. Neither is Ernest van den Haag. Recently both were classified as "conservative libertarians" by Henry Hazlitt in Modern Age (Winter 1976). As is well known, such a classification is viewed as internally inconsistent by radical capitalists or libertarians such as Ayn Rand, Edith Efron, and Tibor Machan, who reject the very possibility of reconciling conservative and libertarian theory. Will the reception of Nozick's treatise by such thinkers as Kristol and van den Haag confirm or invalidate the radicals' contention?

In his review of Anarchy, State, and Utopia in National Review (July 4, 1975), van den Haag claims to share Nozick's preference for a State that restricts itself more and people less, and he joins Nozick in objecting to the "monstrously proliferating regulative, protective, and retributive powers the welfare state has assumed." He points out that an ever-decreasing proportion of the population produces a national product redistributed to or wasted by an ever-increasing proportion kept or occupied unproductively by the government, and he hopes that the trend is not inherent in democracy. To him, this hope appears to be dim in view of today's public delusion according to which everybody can live at everybody else's expense.

As have others after reading Anarchy, State, and Utopia, van den Haag would like nothing better than to agree with Nozick and his proposed minimal state. Yet—as others—he cannot. He does not accept Nozick's premises, in particular not the absolute and inviolable right to one's property—"rights are granted by governments, which also enforce them." He thinks Nozick's "theory of justice" inadequate; and the minimal state, although perhaps desirable, simply not possible.

Accepting the libertarian's contention that no man is entitled to what he has not earned, van den Haag wrestles with the contention's extended consequence: "Suppose parents bring children into the world, but cannot be brought to support them."

A fair supposition. Nor is van den Haag concerned merely with children whose parents are unknown or deceased. He explicitly refers to those whose parents "cannot be brought to support them." These children are not, in Nozick's system, entitled to anything that somebody else has earned or owns. They are, literally, orphans, fully dependent on voluntary charity. But what if voluntary charity should prove unable to support them? How would Nozick's minimal state, opposed on principle to "distributive justice" through coercive taxation, solve the children's dilemma—and its own?

Van den Haag is neither facetious nor polemical. A recently published book provides the challenge, namely The Children of the Counterculture. The children in question are the offspring of "drop outs" of the 1960's. They often live in "communes," rural and urban, and in religious communities, without traditional family patterns. Many are neglected or even tormented, continually upset or seriously disturbed. They live in filth, many are undernourished, and most are without any formal education. "Schools" run by the Hare Krishna sect are rough and tailored to suit objectively irrational whims. According to New York Times reviewer Margot Hentoff, not known to be proestablishment, "what most of the communities have in common is that the children are treated badly by any contemporary humane standard—if not by the standards of pre-modern European rural Slums."

In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill thinks it established beyond question that parents have the duty to see that their children are properly schooled. He demands that children be tested every year and that the parents be fined if the child fails to meet certain standards (if the parents are unable to pay the fine, they will be sentenced to varying periods of forced labor). Yet in the same essay Mill states that he cannot see any reason or justification for any given society to impose its own civilization on another society.

Would our present culture with its emphasis on compulsory schooling be justified—according to Mill—to impose on the "counterculture" its view and practice of enforced compulsory education?

Strangely enough, Nozick's bibliography makes no mention of John Stuart Mill at all. It must be expected that Nozick would strongly disagree with Mill's advocacy of compulsory proper schooling and that he would just as strongly agree with Mill's objection to intervention. His minimal state would have no business in the classroom, as it would have no business interfering with and intervening in anybody's family life.

Could the "counterculture" then count on being left alone by the minimal state? While its parents clearly need not fear the minimal state's intervention in the field of schooling, they also need not expect aid from it, be it called "welfare" or "guaranteed income." Which—after an unavoidable detour—leads us back to Ernest van den Haag's question: "Suppose parents bring children into the world, but cannot be brought to support them?

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