Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.”     Robert A. Heinlein

December 20, 2006

Libertarianism and Utilitarianism

by Brad Warbiany

In the comments to my last post, one of our regular commenters asked a very interesting question:

“Libertarianism is a moral system, valuing individual liberty as it’s highest ideal.”

I have finally gotten an answer. When seen in that light it changes many debates. We must discuss just what is an unalienable right, and does it have value. What defines a moral system if “the good” isn’t it goal? What purpose does that system have, if it is not how we live in a society?

VRB has inadvertently touched on a major philosophical split. She asks what defines a moral system if not “the good”. What she is talking about is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is also a moral philosophy, but unlike libertarianism it seeks to maximize utility (“the good”) rather than liberty.

To better understand, the American Constitution is a document that enshrines the libertarian ideal. It is a document that does very little to provide for the “common good”, preferring a hands-off approach by government and letting people work out the “common good” through voluntary means if they so choose. Socialism, in all its forms, is a system of government that enshrines a utilitarian ideal. It is willing to submit freedom to providing for the “common good”. Our current American government is a mix between the two. The progressive taxation and welfare system attempts to be utilitarian, submitting the liberty to keep what you earn to the need of those who are of low income. However, there is still a very strong libertarian streak in the way our government works, suggesting that some liberties (like the protections in the Bill of Rights) are so important that they cannot be submitted to the “common good”.

But I think VRB has figured out one of the reasons why it can be difficult for many non-libertarians to debate libertarians. It’s a question of first principles. There are a lot of arguments in favor of libertarianism, and there are a lot of arguments in favor of utilitarianism. There are great thinkers on both sides. But the two are completely different moral systems, with completely different ends. When I, as a libertarian, argue with a utilitarian, my appeals to liberty carry little weight. When a utilitarian argues with me, their appeals to the “common good” carry little weight. Most people in this country have been taught, through our wonderful public education system, that utility should trump liberty.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we cannot find some agreement. Many of us who are libertarians also believe that libertarian policies will work better than letting the government define the “common good” and enforce it. In essence, I believe that libertarianism is usually much more utilitarian than socialism. Libertarianism is the credo of the free market, and the free market has done much more to increase utility than socialism ever will, simply due to human nature. When arguing against something like universal health care, it can be attacked both due to its denial of freedom and due to the fact that it’s less likely to maximize utility than a free market approach.

But sometimes there must be a choice. Sometimes liberty and utility are at odds with each other. At that point, the question becomes who you trust. In society, the agent opposite liberty is government, and if you want to enforce a policy of maximizing utility, it is government that enforces that policy. I have very little faith in government to maximize utility, and thus I still choose liberty.

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16 Comments

  1. It’s a bit of a gloss (though convenient to your argument, no doubt) to simply label socialism a form of government rather than acknowledging what it more properly is: an economic system. Likewise, capitalism, or “the free market,” is an economic system, not a form of government. The US constitution enshrines a form of representative self-government and places limits on that government; it does not enshrine an economic system. We the People are free to decide how we will conduct our economic affairs within the representative framework laid out in the constitution.

    To be sure, a well-regulated capitalism is the system best suited to our system of government and our notions of liberty. But just as we decide that the interstate highways are good for all of us, we are free to engage in vigorous debate, weigh the evidence, and decide whether or not We the People want to pool our resources and establish national healthcare. Of course, we are not free to engage in vigorous debate and decide to establish Christianity as a national religion because that is specifically forbidden by our constitution.

    Incidentally, Adam Smith himself advocated progressive taxation in The Wealth of Nations: “It is reasonable, therefore, that [the expenses of maintaining society] should be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society, all the different members contributing, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities.”

    Comment by patrick — December 20, 2006 @ 9:10 am
  2. Oh, clarification: of course we’re free to engage in debate about establishing Christianity as a national religion. We just can’t actually do it.

    Comment by patrick — December 20, 2006 @ 9:13 am
  3. Patrick:

    should be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society, all the different members contributing, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities.

    Those words don’t say that a wealthy person should pay a higher percentage of their income as tax. In proportion sounds more like each person paying the same percentage, but that percentage would account for a greater absolute amount of money. That smacks of cherry picking out of context Patrick. How about providing a link to the whole document?

    Patrick:

    But just as we decide that the interstate highways are good for all of us, we are free to engage in vigorous debate, weigh the evidence, and decide whether or not We the People want to pool our resources and establish national healthcare.

    The Constitution provides enumerated powers to the Federal government. It then specifically states that those powers, privileges and rights not enumerated are reserved to the people and the states. Nowhere do I find an enumerated power to establish national healthcare using the Federal Government as the agent. I have to conclude that the Federal Government cannot, within the framework of the Constitution, do what you suggest without a Constitutional Amendment. Sadly we no longer believe in constraining the Federal Government to operate within the boundaries of the Constitution. Thus, we get arguments like Patrick’s.

    It is convenient to Patrick’s argument to overlook the 9th and 10th Amendments, the debates between the Federalist and Anti-Federalist camps during ratification and the Federalist Papers, the words of the authors themselves.

    Comment by Adam Selene — December 20, 2006 @ 9:23 am
  4. I know the 10th amendment; I started to cite it but decided to let it ride. The 10th amendment disallows the federal government from garnering unto itself new powers not specifically granted. It defers power to the states and to the people,
    exists to prevent government from overreaching the will of the people. But we’ve long recognized the rights of the people to use power granted to them under the constituion to ratify and administer programs for the common good.

    But I guess the post I was responding to sort of laid out the premise that libertarians can’t argue with non-libertarians. I’m not a libertarian, so perhaps this is a waste of time.

    Instead of argue, then, I’ll tee up a really nice one for you to hit down the fairway: please tell me about the time when we “believe[d] in constraining the Federal Government to operate within the boundaries of the Constitution” as you define those boundaries. And then explain to me what was superior about that time in history to this in terms of individual liberty (if that’s the measuring stick we’re applying).

    All best,
    patrick

    PS – Here’s the larger quote. I wasn’t so much cherry picking as trying to avoid tedium:

    “the expense of defending the society, and that of supporting the dignity of the chief magistrate, are both laid out for the general benefit of the whole society. It is reasonable, therefore, that they should be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society, all the different members contributing, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities.”
    http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN20.html

    Comment by patrick — December 20, 2006 @ 10:20 am
  5. patrick,

    To establish a national healthcare system, we would need to amend the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 of our Constitution explains clearly what jurisdiction our Congress has to make laws in our society, and grants the power to make any laws necessary and proper to those enumerated powers. Nowhere have we granted the government power to dictate or enforce a socialist economic system.

    The Constitution does not stop individual States from engaging in socialism, but it does not provide any power for the Federal government to do so. If you want universal health care, perhaps you should inquire with your state government?

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 20, 2006 @ 10:20 am
  6. But we’ve long recognized the rights of the people to use power granted to them under the constituion to ratify and administer programs for the common good.

    Not particularly. This has been something that has crept over the span of centuries, probably culminating in Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Court if they didn’t find his New Deal programs Constitutional. Check out Randy Barnett’s “Restoring the Lost Constitution” (available from Amazon) if you really want to get into the history of exactly how and where the relevant clauses of the Constitution explicitly designed to limit government have been washed away.

    We may “recognize” the rights of the people to do whatever they want, but these powers are not granted by the Constitution. We don’t pay attention to the Constitution anymore, but that doesn’t change what it says.

    But I guess the post I was responding to sort of laid out the premise that libertarians can’t argue with non-libertarians. I’m not a libertarian, so perhaps this is a waste of time.

    The premise was that libertarians and utilitarians are working from different first principles. Meaning that you believe the common good trumps individual economic liberty, and I believe individual economic liberty trumps the common good. I said it was tough to debate this point, because we are aiming at different purposes.

    It’s like saying that I want a blue house, and you want a yellow house. For us to have a house, one of us has to give in, or I have to convince you to change your mind, because yellow houses have poor resale value. My argument against something like national healthcare, when talking to you, would not be that it’s immoral to steal my money to give you healthcare, it would be that national healthcare is simply a bad deal.

    That doesn’t change the fact that the Constitution is a document designed to limit government (which is a completely tangential point to the original post).

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 20, 2006 @ 10:31 am
  7. By the way, Brad, you only assumed I want universal healthcare. I didn’t make that argument. I only asserted society’s right to engage in vigorous debate on the issue, weigh the evidence, and decide one way or the other. It’s a moot point because it’s never going to happen in the US.

    But I still assert a fundamental difference between these kinds of things that fall under the broad egis of “the general welfare” and the specific limitations in the constitution, such as attempts to restrict gun ownership or attempts to establish a state religion. If the framers of the constitution expected the clause in the opening of I.8 (which echoes the preamble) not to refer broadly to other things that would “provide for the common defence and general welfare” — that is, things not in the laundry list to follow — then why even have a bill of rights? Why amend the constitution to specifically forbid establishment of a state religion of I.8 doesn’t explicitly permit it and therefore it’s unconstitutional?

    Comment by patrick — December 20, 2006 @ 10:59 am
  8. Patrick, the authors of the Constitution did not believe that any powers were granted to the Federal Government other than those enumerated. Read The Federalist Papers or the ratification debates. Madison was very explicit on this point, as were the other Framers. The Bill of Rights was added because the Anti-Federalists argued, persuasively, that people would try to aggregate power to the Federal Government that was not enumerated in the Constitution. The 10th Amendment was specifically added when the BoR was drafted to prevent just such a thing from happening.

    Comment by Adam Selene — December 20, 2006 @ 11:05 am
  9. By the way, read Section 1.8. The only place that the words of the preamble are repeated is in the discussion of why the Congress can impose taxes. It does not say that the taxes can be used for anything other than the common defence, general welfare (which does not mean Medicaid in the language of the day), and pay the debts of the United States. That is significantly different from how the Feds actually use the money collected through taxation.

    The idea was that the states would take care of everything else.

    Comment by Adam Selene — December 20, 2006 @ 11:09 am
  10. I walked right into that one, Adam. Intentionalism is never a strong position for someone who’s not an intentionalist to take. I suppose I should say, I side with what appears to be a majority of present-day interpreters of the constitution who draw a distinction between things specifically forbidden and things simply not enumerated. I’m not a constitutional scholar myself, so I’m winging it. At the end of the day, I am, as Brad suggests, mostly a utilitarian. And I remain unconvinced by any argument I’ve seen anywhere that a total libertarian approach to society will work. Hence my invitation (above) to point to the time in our history when we were functioning as a libertarian society.

    Comment by patrick — December 20, 2006 @ 11:24 am
  11. I know where it says “general welfare”; that’s exactly what I meant. They can collect taxes to provide for the common defence and the general welfare, much as the preamble says the constitution was established for in the first place. You can glibly say, “that doesn’t mean medicaid,” but I know enough about 18th century English language to know it’s a pretty broad term.

    Comment by patrick — December 20, 2006 @ 11:28 am
  12. OK, I have to work. Thanks for an excellent and vigorous debate. I’ll be back. I appreciate your really good thought-provoking arguments.

    Comment by patrick — December 20, 2006 @ 11:29 am
  13. patrick,

    Again, if you really want to get into learning about this, I highly recommend Randy Barnett’s book.

    I’m not a big fan of “original intent”. However, I am a fan of using the ratification debates, understanding of language/etc, to figure out exactly what the people of the day thought they were ratifying. For example, if the words “necessary and proper” were commonly understood at the time to suggest that these legislation should both be necessary (not for extraneous purpose) and limited to the properly enumerated powers, how can we go back now and say that “necessary and proper” only means “convenient and only ancillary to the enumerated powers”?

    Simply put, the document used to mean something, and that meaning has been stripped by the Court. Of course, it’s not only Legislative powers. The Court has been stripping power out of the 1st Amendment (McCain-Feingold), and the 5th Amendment (Kelo). Now the government can tell you what you can and can’t say about a candidate, and can take your house to give to a developer. Even the Bill of Rights is not sacrosanct when we can “interpret” rights out of existence.

    As for “general welfare”, James Madison (the father of the Constitution) said:

    With respect to the two words “general welfare,” I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators. If the words obtained so readily a place in the “Articles of Confederation,” and received so little notice in their admission into the present Constitution, and retained for so long a time a silent place in both, the fairest explanation is, that the words, in the alternative of meaning nothing or meaning everything, had the former meaning taken for granted.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 20, 2006 @ 11:37 am
  14. patrick,

    It’s been a pleasure. Stick around when you get a chance.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 20, 2006 @ 11:39 am
  15. I am reaching back to an ethics class from many years ago. My understanding of a moral system was that it was system by which one lived their life, which would promote “the good.” “The good” didn’t mean providing for the welfare of others, but so that members of society could live together with a minimum of conflict. Most common agreement would be that stealing and murder could not be tolerated. Other behavior, such as if one was puritan or libertine, would be defined for that moral system. It would seem to me that having liberty would allow one to chose their moral system. The government might have another system in order to prevent chaos. You may argue what type of government we have, but I would propose that when you speak of government in this way it is strictly a political system. The governments ethical system would be laws concerning its citizens behavior.

    Comment by VRB — December 20, 2006 @ 12:26 pm
  16. VRB,

    A moral system is simply a collection of beliefs about what is right and wrong. Check out this Wikipedia article on value systems. Perhaps the word “value” rather than “moral” may help to reduce the confusion. Libertarianism and utilitarianism are competing value systems, each with their own definition of “good”. A value system may be a religion, living your life according to the tenets of Christianity or Islam.

    And all are separate from systems of government. However, certain systems of government can be set up in accordance with those systems. Governments don’t have value systems, but governments, in the way they are designed, reinforce certain value systems.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — December 20, 2006 @ 1:19 pm

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