Friday, March 6, 2015

Libertarian Brutalism and the Fuzzy Venn Diagram


Maybe the libertarian brutalism brouhaha blew over ages ago.  Or perhaps it festers still.  Either way, it might be used as an excuse to draw a fuzzy Venn diagram.  So I did.

Whatever Jeffrey Tucker originally intended or actually said in comparing a subset of libertarians to the movement in architecture known as brutalism, I perceived him as saying that a certain strand of libertarians are like architectural brutalists in wanting to emphasize just the essentials, and that such brutalism is less preferable than non-brutalist, humanist or "thick" libertarianism. Hopefully my perception is reasonably accurate.

Whatever Mr. Tucker actually wrote, within the small but growing community of people who identify as libertarians and comment on issues of the day, an ongoing storm of controversy intensified following Mr. Tucker's essay.  The controversy can be boiled down to a debate over the definition of "libertarian."  Over what it means to be a true Scotsman, so to speak, with opponents divided into two basic camps.  Forgive me for greatly oversimplifying things, but one camp argued that being a libertarian necessarily required that one renounce all bigotry, except perhaps for bigotry against bigots.  The other camp, the so-called brutalists, argued that, whatever the merits of bigotry, one's status as a bigot or non-bigot is irrelevant to whether or not one is a libertarian.  I reside in the second camp, not because I condone bigotry, but because I favor a more restricted definition of "libertarian."  Like all preferences concerning the meaning of symbols, it is by nature arbitrary and personal.  I can't control what meanings and arbitrary preferences other people adopt, but I can explain why I adopt my own, and why you should, too.

To service such explanation, I created the fuzzy Venn diagram depicted above.  It's fuzzy because boundaries of classification systems almost always have some degree of fuzziness around the edges.  But that's not the point.  The point is simply that the set of all moral principles (shown in pinkish-white) is larger than and entirely contains the subset of social moral principles, i.e., the moral principles that relate to social behavior (shown in yellow).  Further, that the subset of social moral principles is larger than and entirely contains the sub-subset of non-aggression principles (shown in green).  One might even go further and distinguish political non-aggression principles from more broadly social non-aggression principles.

To avoid going too far afield I'll neglect issues touching on what is, and is not, a properly stated non-aggression principle and underlying issues such as the definitions of "person," "property" or "aggression."  These issues are more fundamental and will inevitably cause divisions within the libertarian community.  For example disagreements over the rights of a fetus cannot be resolved by the non-aggression principle itself, because such disagreements rest on assumptions underlying it.  But such divisions are not the topic at hand.

Assuming that the Venn diagram above is valid, the brutalism controversy might be summarized as a debate over whether or not the term "libertarian" should be applied to everybody who adheres to moral principles in the green, non-aggression area, or only to some subset of such people who also adhere to other principles.  When summarized in this way, there are few who advocate for redefining the term "libertarian" based on acceptance of the N.A.P. plus some other principle. In fact, unaided by a search engine I can't think of anyone clearly arguing for such redefinition.  I can't say such people don't exist.  It is confusion over that point that is at the heart of the brutalism controversy.

Instead, those who eschew brutalism excoriate those who reject or fail to defend other moral principles, besides the N.A.P., whatever those other principles may be.   The "thickists" may point out that the failure to teach other moral principles hurts the cause of liberty, or is immoral.  Such arguments are healthy and unobjectionable. They might go as far as stating "I refuse to associate with brutalists." Fine.  If they exclaim "brutalists are not even libertarians!" then I object.  Or if they argue that one can (or should) be a libertarian while elevating some other moral principle above the N.A.P., this is also objectionable.  More than that, it's illogical.

Suppose, for example, that one values an ethic of multiculturalism.  If Jennifer values multiculturalism as superior to non-aggression, then she believes that it may sometimes be morally acceptable to use coercion to enforce multicultural values, however regrettable that aggression might be.  Conversely, if John values non-aggression over multiculturalism, then he believes that however regrettable bigotry and prejudice may be, it is never acceptable to oppose them with coercive force to any extent greater than justified by necessary defense.  Since Jennifer values multiculturalism over non-aggression, she cannot possibly be considered a "libertarian" because she rejects the non-aggression principle, which by definition forbids aggression for any purpose but necessary defense against the aggression of others.  Conversely, whether or not John is a bigot, he cannot be considered as anything other than a "libertarian" so long as he adheres to the non-aggression principle.  If you don't like bigotry, and John is a bigot, you may call him out as such.  But if you deny the possibility that bigoted libertarians can exist, or should be recognized as libertarians, you are depriving the word "libertarian" of its established meaning.  There is no other word in use to precisely identify people who hold to the non-aggression principle.  If "libertarian" is defined as somebody who takes exception to non-aggression in favor of some other set of moral principle even if only in limited circumstances, then some other word will have to be found to describe people who adhere to the non-aggression principle, which forbids such exceptions.

Why is it so hard to accept that "libertarian" can be used to describe people who hold to other beliefs that are abhorred?  The word is merely a general term, relevant to a narrow set of moral principles.  It must exclude other moral principles to be a useful term, and therefore it is inevitable that some libertarians will find other libertarians holding abhorrent beliefs, saying and doing abhorrent things.   Some atheists likewise may find other atheists abhorrent, yet we do not find any movement to redefine "atheism" as anything other than a belief that God does not exist.  Instead, people classify the genus of "atheists" into various species.  And it is considered perfectly normal to accept some species of atheism while abhorring others.

Whatever explains the desire to define "libertarianism" as something more than the a belief in the morality of the non-aggression principle, as if "libertarian" were a synonym for "good person," the desire is damnable.   "Libertarian" should not be thought of as a synonym for "good person."  There are good libertarians, who eschew all evil.  And there are bad libertarians, who do not eschew all evil, but who at least eschew the evil of non-defensive aggression.  What makes libertarianism such a powerful political ideology is its ban on using disagreements over principles in other areas of the moral Venn diagram as justification for aggression.  Take that away, and libertarianism becomes just another ideology justifying coercive rule by political elites, based on whatever principles or whims infuse their egos.

So is "brutalism" just a species of libertarianism?  It depends on how far one extends the concept of being a non-brutalist or humanist libertarian.  If the humanism is subservient to the non-aggression principle, such that aggression serving the cause of humanism is forbidden, then libertarians may be divided into separate non-humanist and humanist species.  However, if the humanism is not subservient to the non-aggression principle, the ideology is in no sense libertarian, as it justifies aggression for other than necessary defense.  A humanist who justifies aggression in the cause of humanism is not a libertarian, nor is one being "brutalist" by pointing that out.  But the confusing terminology of "brutalist libertarian" might lead some believe that one can be a libertarian of a non-brutalist sort, while rejecting the non-aggression principle.  Such confusion would be bad, if it became widespread.  Very bad.  It would divide those who hold to non-aggression, destroy all the utility of the word "libertarian" that has been building for the past 45 years or so, and require that a new word be adopted to replace it.  Some libertarians are also bigots or other scurrilous things, and there will always exist disagreements over moral principles. So let's just call out bad people for the evil they do, whether or not they are also libertarians.