In Defense of Sin: Re-examining the Libertarian Agenda

I was introduced to John Medaille's blog, The Distributist Review, by Kevin Carson, and I'm enjoying it very much. In particular, Medaille's essay, Why I Am Not a Libertarian, has lingered in the back of my mind for some time. I've always been a little amazed by the idea of such a radical Catholic approach to political economy, but Medaille has an interesting take on the role that sin plays in his (however moderate) rejection of libertarianism. While he claims that his conception of sin in this context is not theological, I think the rejection of humanism in Catholic theology has an interesting grain of truth to it, at least for libertarians to consider.

The second critique is the absence of distributive justice. Mutualism, as Kevin presents it (and I may be wrong here) relies (as does neoclassical economics) on corrective justice only, on free contract. But contracts arbitrate power, not productivity, not a contribution to the productive process. That is the whole reason that the formulas of marginal productivity do not work: they marginalize not productivity but power. Any glance at the difference in pay scales between the CEO and the line worker, between the sweatshop seamstress and the owner confirm that power is the key, not productivity. earns 500 times more than the line worker not because he is 500 times more productive but because he is 500 times more powerful; the seamstress in a sweatshop will be given a pittance not because she lacks productivity but because she lacks power. A glance at the statistics on the increase in productivity compared to the flatness of the typical wage shows the same thing. A contractual system, apart from a prior notion of distributive justice, will end in power being arbitrated, for that is what contracts do. Now, you can reasonably reply that a notion of distributive justice is satisfied by usufruct of land, and that will be true to a large extent, but not completely, because land is not the only factor of production. There will be many opportunities to cheat, which brings me to the next critique: you have not accounted for sin.

I am not so dogmatic as to insist on a notion of sin in a theological sense, but I think we can all agree that people have a tendency to try and profit at the expense of others, a desire to earn a surplus profit. Oddly enough, this is not really a desire for gain in terms of money, but in terms of power. For it is easy to show that everyone would be better off in an economic sense in a mutualist system. However, economic betterment is not the issue; power is. The pure joy of being able to lord it over your neighbor holds an irresistible attraction for at least some people, and maybe more than we think.

All of these things are problematic, are they not, for anarchism. Men have always had govmints not because of flawed thinking, but because of practical problems. The community has a role in all these affairs for all of these reasons, but a freely contracting society would have difficulty in handling them, would it not, because they cannot be subsumed under contract. Therefore, corrective justice alone is insufficient, and economics must also be political economy.

Which brings me to by last critique, and that is that contract, social or otherwise, does not exhaust the nature of man; it is too individualistic, while man is social. We are called into being by the ready-made community of family, and we receive a series of gifts which are purely social in nature and not exchangeable: language, nationality, custom, moral sense, etc., are all gifts outside the exchange system and cannot be accounted for by that system. Yet the exchange system relies on them and cannot exist without them. Therefore, a better description is needed.

My reading of both critiques is that they are complimentary. A purely contractual view of human relations is simply not adequate (I don't think Carson alleges it is, but Medaille is certainly not speaking to a feature of our philosophy of which we libertarians can claim to be ignorant) because it ignores issues of power consolidation that destabilize the social order in favor of an economic explanation and remedy. And of course, this social order transcends economics because it is more fundamentally human than any contractual arrangement of words and ideas can hope to represent.

The key idea in this essay is that of "sin", not in the theological sense, as Medaille explains, but as a persistent human flaw in integrating individuals into a sustainably and mutually beneficial social order that allows for maximum individual expression and self-realization (clearly there is a theological pedigree here, but it's not one that I think should turn people off - people are imperfect; that is hardly in doubt, except maybe by the Cult of Galt). Will humans ever be able to overcome the temptation of seeking to dominate one another? If they cannot overcome this part of their nature, how is it productive to attack the state as "dominator" when it's only facilitating what's naturally within us? It's easy to talk about the large-scale authoritarianism of the state; it's decidedly less clean to weed out all the petty and small-scale authoritarianism at the interpersonal, family, and local level.

Libertarians are usually up in arms about the government, comparing it to a criminal and alleging the morals of both entities are identical in light of some consistent moral directive such as the non-aggression principle. I wouldn't try to say there are no similarities between criminals and the political class, but this equivocation of politics with mere crime introduces a problem in the analysis. Namely: if the undesirable dynamics that inform the behavior of state agents are fundamentally human dynamics - the same human dynamics we've dealt with throughout history - and if these dynamics are not a special type of "evil" but a common and timeless one, then the libertarian agenda becomes much, much broader than mere politics.

This is why Medaille's use of the term "sin" is so informative: in its basic approach to the human condition, libertarianism becomes a theory of individual morality when looked at this way. If libertarianism is concerned with making humans - collectively and individually - more moral, more good, and more acceptable, then it is actually a dangerously utopian agenda. It seeks to change man, not refashion the social, political, and economic order to suit man's nature. The perfectly moral libertarian man is no more achievable than the New Soviet Man, and the agenda that seeks to create him is not truly individualist.

At its foundational root, libertarianism as a political tendency does not really take a positive stance on human nature per se, for if it did it would be a moral imperitive, circumscribing the set of human possibilities and, therefore, predicting the set of appropriate actions on consequentialist grounds. Principles matter in apprehending the human being, not because human nature is a known quantity, but because it is an ongoing discovery that requires a consistency of curiosity and openness to realize. Libertarians, by and large, do not seek to change man into something he is not, and they certainly would not be individualist if they saw the human as a vessel for particular ideas about what humans "should" be. I don't even think libertarians have anything unique to say about particular, widespread, small-scale social arrangements - their critique of, say, child or spousal abuse is not really as different from other philosophies' critiques as they like to suggest. Isn't the appeal of consistent non-aggression applied to human affairs not really a libertarian feature so much as a feature of basic civil society? That libertarians are simply more consistent in their advocacy of non-agression is no mind-boggingly unique contribution to political discourse; it's actually just a preference, I think (or, worse, the rhetorical one-upsmanship that so many of us find distasteful in libertarians).

But I submit that this moral sensibility is not what libertarianism, at its philosophic and motivational core, is really about. Now, there are libertarians who make the philosophy into a moral imperitive based upon a reduction of human nature to some easily articulated statement. But consider that that is not the feature of their philosophy that binds the admittedly wide variety of libertarian ideas together into a coherent philosophy - indeed, we all disagree about certain issues, especially ethical ones. What unites the libertarian approach is something much less overarching, I believe. We have a common ground, not in the sticky questions of what it means to be free, or what to do in lifeboat situations, or whether to be altruistic, or any of that stuff. What we largely agree on is a particular condition that is clearly oppressive to individuals in general and civil society at large.

This is why the state is such a universal target of libertarians - it does not take a great amount of reflection to see the "violence inherent in the system". But what makes the state the state and not just a criminal syndicate? It's not useful to answer, "nothing". There is a reason that libertarians rail against politicians and not neightborhood thieves. Criminality and aggression are not the features of the peculiar, common libertarian enemy around which we all unite. Even anarchists and minarchists unite around something that is different than the state, something that we all can see them united in, even if we don't try to articulate it. What could this common enemy be?

It is here that Medaille's distributist critique of libertarianism is informative, for I think our target is really concentrated power, in spite of our professed targets. What threatens a "libertarian qua libertarian" is not violence so much as massive violence; not theft so much as a system of widespread theft; not fraud so much as a regime of ongoing lies. And what concentrates social power, legitimacy, and authority? The concept of the institution.

It is my argument that libertarians tend to frame their politics around the idea that institutions allow for artificial distributions of power - as reflected in wealth, resources, control and decision making, etc. This artificial distribution is achieved through consolidation and centralization, usually by force, and maintained by the inculcation in the subject population of a myth backed by a force (see David Gross's argument for institutional authority as a kind of inertia). By this analysis, the most basic artificial institution is the state. This explains why libertarians single out the state for critique: it is the most centralized distribution of power in society. As such, it's ongoing task is to provide a sort of moral subsidy, or legitimacy, to its agents that supercedes the legitimacy of local civil society. This affects not just the fact that people often behave in antisocial ways, but the sense of legitimacy even encourages this behavior in its agents, and often encourages it outside of its ranks as well, while providing defense against, and destabilization of, the natural sanctions of civil society (at least temporarily).

It is in this context that the preoccupation with the state - and, in the case of more leftist libertarians, corporations and other institutions of privilege - make sense. The key issue is power consolidation, and the libertarian agenda seeks to preserve the natural dispersion of power found in local civil society. Crime is not our issue - organized theft, murder, and crime are, and the more organized the more threatening. Pollution is not our issue - the consolidation of economic power that causes pollution to occur with impunity is. Individual rights are not our issue - the aggregation of political power that makes oppression of entire populations is.

Of course, there are desirable moral consequences to this view of libertarianism, but they aren't dictates. Power ulimately comes from people, and what we seek is the full realization of power only as a matter of individual self-realization and expression, not as something to be extracted from some and concentrated in others. Indeed, this is vital if the individual is to be minimally repressed, even if this means that small scale violence and crime continue to occur. The libertarian experiment does not fail if people continue to aggress against one another, because preventing this isn't the unique mission of the libertarian. Rather, his unique task is the demonstration that power can be decentralized sustainably so, for example, that when murders occur they are on a small scale and not the genocide and slaughter consistent with state sponsorship. Maintaining a true civil society requires that individual failings do not become amplified into existential threats for the society.

Sin, in the sense of individual moral failing, cannot be overthrown without the annihilation of the individual. Libertarians are wise to re-examine their motivations for opposing the state if they view its abolition as the eradication of some special type of evil, for evil is a human, not institutional, characteristic. The individual will always be some good mixed with some evil, and societies can moderate this without the need for a new type of human. But while individual evil may not be abolished, large institutions that centralize power and evil, however, can and should be. They are not inevitable; indeed, they are actually quite fragile if we truly believe that individuals are the cornerstones of civil society properly conceived.

This is why Medaille's critique of libertarianism is correct; while there are many libertarians who believe in the perfectability of the individual man and the universality of their moral conclusions, many other libertarians simply don't understand what is really motivating their philosophy and the cameradie of our philosophy. These libertarians misconstrue their agenda to be the changing of man's nature rather than the changing of society's institutional emphasis. Institutions are artificial and arbitrary, lacking permanence and, more often than not, sufficiently thoughtful planning of their core functions. While sin is not something we can reasonably overcome in totality, there is nothing to say that institutions which amplify sin cannot be dashed from their foundations, given the proper arguments, strategy, and principles - in other words, that both human individuals and society at large can be convinced to deny institutions their overblown legitimacy.

Many thanks to Keith Preston for his comments; I encourage you to check out his site, his blog, and the associated Yahoo! group. His wisdom was critical not only in helping me write this post but also in formulating this thesis in an earlier post, A Counter-Institutionalist Manifesto.

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Written on Sunday, February 17, 2008