Thursday, September 10, 2009

The First Libertarian Question

Well, it's not the first one that was asked in response to my My Libertarian post, but it's the first one I'll address.  Richard Albert writes:
One question, though: Do you really think that subsidiarity serves libertarian interests?
I guess, again, it depends on what sort of libertarian one is (again, to borrow from the original post by Jim Manzi that started this whole thing).  I think Mr. Manzi makes a great argument for subsidiarity serving the needs of libertarianism-as-means.  When reading social science analyses of America (and, granted, I haven't read a whole lot), the results (whether the topic is healthcare, education, real estate development, crime, the rate of caesarean sections, etc) tend to vary greatly state-to-state.  And they often vary independent of geography (neighbouring states can have vastly different results).  Assuming people in each state are willing to observe and learn from the experiences of other states, this is that whole "laboratories of democracy" thing at work.  Of course, there's no guarantee that states will learn from each other, but we can certainly hope.

Of course, I might have the relationship backwards for that one.  Maybe the point is that libertarianism is serving the needs of subsidiarity and the utility of the laboratories of democracy.  Certainly, subsidiarity requires a certain amount of hands-off governing by the federal or higher level authority.  The greater the number of parameters and guidelines imposed on states by the feds, the fewer permutations that we'll see coming from the states.  (I know I tend to flip between Canadian and America examples, but the U.S. tends to be a better example of federalism and subsidiarity, so that's why I'm using them here.)

Of course, there's no real need for me to go over this stuff.  You can all just read it for yourself.  So, the question comes to, does subsidiarity serve the interests of libertarianism-as-jon?

When Richard first posed this question, my first reaction was to think that it likely doesn't.  I can certainly envision a world in which greater freedom for the local level government leads to greater restrictions on people by the local government.  If the feds say that anything goes, but then your city council attempts to run every part of your life, this isn't really a huge victory for libertarianism.  Further, the more levels of government you have, the greater the likelihood that one of them will stomp all over freedom.  (I say this as someone who lived in Ottawa when we had the local municipal government, regional council, the national capital commission, the provincial government and the federal government telling us what to do - thankfully, we eliminated the regional government, score one for efficiency!)

Further, the lower down the governmental food chain you get, the less people are interested.  At the local level, special interests can drive political agendas to a far greater degree (as, from my experience, most interest groups are looking for the government to do something).  With lower turnout, this leads to a greater rate of activists amongst the voting populace.  In Ottawa, this can be seen best with the school board.  Voter turnout is so very low for school board elections that you pretty much need some sort of faction behind you to get elected.  Again, this is not a recipe for a lovely libertarian utopia.

Still, I can't get away from the idea that my version of libertarianism must be coupled with some form of subsidiarity (and, no, I'm not going to get into some tautological argument that true subsidiarity will mean that the vast majority of issues will be decided by institutions smaller than government - churches, neighbourhood watch, families, etc - or just by individuals; I don't think such an argument would be particularly illuminating, regardless of the merits).

An initial, quick and dirty, idea is that the lower the level of government, the greater the ability of the individual to influence the decisions, both in terms of the relative weight of his vote (excuse the inherent sexism of the gender-neutral-pronoun-lacking English language) and the percentage of voters he can be reasonably believed to influence.  This doesn't guarantee the enacting of libertarian policies - and, quite possibly, does not even increase the likelihood of them being enacted - but in libertarianism-as-jon this increased choice and self determination is, in and of itself, a libertarian outcome.

Perhaps this is where I stray from libertarianism, but I don't think that the individual is the sole legitimate social actor (though I do believe that only with the individual does freedom and liberty lie).  Though I tend to dislike collectivist politics, to say that there are no collectives seems to ignore realty.  Acknowledging a social nature of humanity means that we acknowledge human groupings - even those designed to take on decision making roles (see churches and the various committees often enacted therein).

This would seem to be where we enter into the question of freedom as exit.  This is a topic about which I am not well versed, and I certainly don't want to get into it - though I will borrow it to continue on my current train of thought.  If we take the freedom to exit as a pretty basic manifestation of liberty (which, roughly speaking, seems like a fair proposition), we need to apply its meaning contextually.  Even though libertarianism-as-goal (and, yes, I'm deliberately going back to the Manzi term, rather than sticking with my personal one) is very ideological compared to the more empirical, libertarianism-as-means, it cannot be considered in a vacuum (at least not when translated to libertarianism-as-jon).  Theoretical freedom of exit means very little when real-world barriers get in your way (in the link above Will Wilkinson notes how useless freedom of exit is when your home is barricaded by anarchists).  Though we all have the freedom of movement and association, things tend to get in our way.

There are probably two things that cause the greatest barriers to exit - geography and borders.  Leaving a country is quite difficult if you don't live right near a border, and especially if there is no other jurisdiction that wants you within their borders.  As someone living in Ottawa, I can travel fairly easily to the United States if I desired to leave Canada, however, I would have greater difficulty establishing a life there.  If it was not Canada, but Ontario that I wished to leave, a move to Vancouver would be logistically difficult (read: expensive).    A relocation to Manitoba would be less expensive.  Of course, even if I could afford the move, I'd still be leaving my family, my friends and all ties to the local community that I've made.  In such a scenario, the cost of leaving Ontario might still be too great.

However, living in Ottawa, I could have an easy escape from my province.  I need only move across to the river to Quebec.  I could get a place that is mere walking distance to my current home, or I could drive for two hours and become a resident of Montreal.  Neither of these pose much of a problem geographically, and neither has any border issues.

Unfortunately, there is another problem with this, culture.  The cultural differences between Ottawa and Gatineau aren't huge, but they exist.  Even if I really wanted to leave Ontario, I would have to weigh the benefits of leaving Ontario with the costs of moving into a new culture.

With each layer of government added, freedom of exit is more affordable; the costs associated with moving diminish, and people have a realistic ability to actually leave a jurisdiction.  Do you love Canada, love Ontario but hate Ottawa zoning by-laws?  Well, you can just move to Carleton Place.  You'll still be able to keep all the ties you had in Ottawa, keep all the positives of your province and country, but you'll be able to escape pernicious minor regulations that you find undesirable.

It seems to me that this is political-level libertarianism-as-goal.  If we take libertarianism to mean not only the freedom of individual actors to do as they wish, but also the freedom of individuals to form politicl/governing bodies to make decisions.  By breaking this structure down into the smallest possible components, we afford people greater political choice and self-determination than if we had just one overbearing centralized government.

Perhaps I've skirted Richard's question a bit.  There's no guarantee that subsidiarity won't lead to many small tyrannies rather than one large one, but for libertarianism-as-jon, this concern is not paramount.  As someone who leans towards goal-oriented libertarianism, the choice is what is key.  Just as I believe that increased choice is the only way to ensure a virtuous populace, the only way to ensure a virtuous government is to give people as much control over their government as possible.  The more political/governance choice we have, the greater the chance that we'll create little hamlets of liberty.  There's no guarantee, of course, but it's the only shot we've got.  If we have no opportunity to succeed, we will definitely fail.  Unfortunately, even with a chance to succeed, we still might not.

So, this post turned out much longer than I'd expected - and it is definitely a bit of a mess - but for anyone who stuck around through the whole thing, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  I'm perfectly willing to believe that I'm way off track here.


  1. Hi Jon,

    I read this and thought of you. Enjoy!

    Still enjoying your stimulating and interesting work on this blog, by the way.

    Very best,


  2. Thanks Richard, I'll check that out right away.