Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Is it Really a Choice? The Libertarian Myths of Choice and Coercion as Applied to Labor and the Social Contract

One of the aspects of Libertarianism that is frequently difficult for the uninitiated to wrap their heads around is the notion of inviolable rights of Libertarianism (life, liberty, property) being negative rights and not positive rights. For example, the right to property is not a right to own a certain amount of property, or even any property at all. Rather, it is a right of an individual not to not have others take any property that has been justly acquired. The view that all rights are negative rights leads to counter-intuitive judgements such as the assertion that to-work or not-to-work is a choice of the individual regardless of whether or not there are any actual jobs. But intuitiveness aside, the most interesting aspect of considering choice in this fashion is that it seems to lead to an inconsistency with regards to the way that Libertarians view governments such as the US that compel the paying of taxes. It can be argued that, as the US is a government based on Social Contract theory which most Libertarians accept, the Libertarian can choose not to accept the contract and, consequently, nothing that the US government does to a particular Libertarian can be construed as coercion so long as the Libertarian has the ability to decline accepting the contract.

Negative rights are most easily construed by considering that such rights are freedoms ``from'' something, not freedoms ``to'' do something. The classic Libertarian example of this is a person starving to death still has the right to life. The right to life does not entail some third party coming along to provide aid to a person in dire need. Rather, the right to life simply entails no third party will take another's life and that no third party will steal the food of someone and cause them to starve to death. Additionally, negative rights are seen by Libertarians as things that can be given up by the right holder. For example, a person who is starving to death and has food may freely exchange that food to a third party in exchange for money no matter how perverse the outcome for the staving person. According to Libertarians, individuals always have the capacity to contract exceptions to their rights with other individuals. In this way both wage labor and civil government become possible in Libertarianism. In wage labor, individuals part with the output of their labor in exchange for money. In civil government, individuals give up certain freedoms in exchange for security. In both cases, the giving up of rights needs to be voluntary or else the exchange is a violation of an individual's rights.

Now, in part because because I am a Christian and in part because I am something of an Aristotelean, I would argue that the right to work is a positive right. I believe that there is both something mystical and something very natural about labor. A human being who does not have the opportunity to engage in labor to some extent lacks some of the externalities that are needed to be fully human. But that claim is neither here nor there to the Libertarian. Regardless of the fact that human beings need food and shelter to survive and labor is the chief mechanism by which those things can be attained, the Libertarian holds that the right to work is a negative right, individuals can choose to work or not to work but they have no right ``to'' be given a job. If there are no jobs available and an individual has no capital to start a business, Libertarian holds that neither society nor any other individual has an obligation to give that individual food or shelter as the choice to work is always a choice regardless of external circumstances.

One might expect a similar outlook on civil government in Libertarian circles. But for the most part, Libertarianism seems to take the opposite approach and assert that when any state which infringes any of the rights held to be inviolable by the Libertarian, there is coercion involved. But under Social Contract theory, individuals are not coerced into giving up certain freedoms in exchange for security. To argue that any particular government is coercive, is to argue that there is no real choice involved in the social contract. But it seems to me that if an individual is truly free to reject all job offers but still have a choice with regards to whether or not to work, then an individual also has to be free free to reject all present states and still have a choice with regards to living under coercion or not. After all, any state that allows its residents to freely leave cannot be said to impose itself through force on those very residents. As freedoms are negative rights it follows that no individual has a positive right to a particular form of government. Further, Libertarians allow the giving up of rights through contracts, so long as individuals are free to walk away from the social contract, by permanently leaving the country for example, that government cannot be said to be coercive to the Libertarian any more than an employer who refuses to offer a job to someone who is unemployed and starving to death.

So we must conclude that Libertarian has no ground to brand as coercive any state as unjust except for those states which deny their populace the ability to leave its boundaries. In the Libertarian view, the North Korean would certainly be an unjust regime. A country such as Singapore, where one can be arrested for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, would be a just regime because its citizens are free to reject the social contract by emigrating elsewhere. Someone who wants to be a member of a banned religious movement in Singapore does not have a positive right to do so from the Libertarian perspective but a negative right to do so. That right, the right to join certain religious movements, is a right that is voluntarily given up by the Singaporean and a right that can be taken back by a decision on the part of the individual Singaporean to rescind the social contract by emigrating elsewhere.

Now let's be clear, this judgement that a repressive state can be entirely just seems to me to be absurd. (Libertarianism doesn't lead any room for shades of grey. Either a state infringes on inviolable human rights or it does not.) But notice where the absurdity comes from, the view that particular human rights are negative. The problem is not my application of all human rights being negative rights rather than positive rights but the very assertion that all human rights are negative rights. After all, the Libertarian conclusion about wage labor being truly free is no less absurd. It just is not as obvious because at present, jobs are relatively abundant in the US. There are relatively few people in the US starving to death or even suffering a significant case of malnutrition so we do not see, like we did during the Great Depression, widespread hunger and significant numbers of people dying from starvation. Part of this, undoubtedly, is from government funded relief programs and part of this, undoubtedly, is also due to the superior financial condition of the country. But when push comes to shove, if it can be truly said that workers have a choice about whether to work or not in any nation where their food and shelter is not guaranteed then to be consistent we also have to apply that metric to civil liberties and conclude that any any regime which allows its subjects to leave cannot be unjust.

Libertarians, then, if they hold to their view of all human freedoms being negative rights and accept Social Contract theory, have no basis on which to criticize the US government for being coercive. At best, they can critique the US system on a practical level and say that `the US government would do well to build more freedoms into the law.' And I, for one, would actually agree with that limited statement. But few Libertarians restrict themselves to this more limited critique of the US. Instead, most Libertarians claim that because the US infringes on key individual freedoms that Libertarians hold as inviolable, the US is a coercive regime and, as such, is inherently unjust. In doing so, the Libertarian is inconsistent. For the Libertarian to be consistent, either some theory of politics other than the social contract needs to be adopted or it must be conceded that at least some human rights are positive rights. And as for me, I adopt the latter.

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