How can we know whether libertarianism is even possible?

…as answered on Quora….

First, let us be precise. How do we know that liberty, as conceived by libertarians, is possible? That is the question.

Liberty, let us stipulate, is the freedom that can be had by all.

Freedom makes sense in a variety of contexts, and one popular definition is absence of obligations, or socially imposed requirements.

One need not be a philosopher engaged in some elaborate phenomenology to see that obligations, or duties, are inevitable in society; likewise, one need not be an anthropologist or social psychologist to understand that some people wish to avoid one variety of obligations, while others choose a different set from which to unburden themselves. Popularly, some folks of a rebellious nature see in any duty an imposition, and demand liberation — for them, any burden is “oppression.” That may be the urge of the anarchist, or nihilist, or socialist, or merely the froward. But it is not what libertarians are up to.

Libertarians look at the social world as transactional. Force, and threat thereof, is different from cooperation which is different from avoidance; initiated force is distinct from defensive force, which is distinct from retaliatory. Of the many contexts in which freedom makes sense, libertarians see that freedom from initiated force is the freedom that all can have, and, moreover, the variety that places the least amount of obligatory burden upon society, for the duty each individual faces is not to initiate force, violence, coercion, or threat thereof.*

So, can this be achieved? Can coercion be equalized and minimized, as a matter of law?

Well, we can see that it is the basic principle of many realms of social life. It is even a deeply embedded assumption in current law. The libertarian idea is at the heart of why murder and theft and even fraud are regarded as crimes legitimately fought with defensive and retaliatory force.

Of course, many legislated laws — which can be quite different critters from the laws we see in the practice and scope of the common law, where traditional understanding of crimes and torts developed — flout these principles. Many laws as concocted by tyrants and legislators are themselves initiations of force. Libertarians oppose these.

Past American society was burdened with far fewer laws of this latter type than now. So we know that freer societies are possible. But no society has ever been wholly free, by libertarian lights. How could we know whether the fully free society is possible?

We cannot, not now.

I regard the plausibility of the libertarian ideas as a hunch. I know that I prefer the freer interactions in our own society to the forced interactions. Further, by history and social theory (including but not limited to economics) I know that were we freer, we would be, on the whole, much better off: not merely “happier” but more virtuous and adaptable and even honorable. But given that some people even now cannot cope with the little freedom they have, and that many, many people regard their lust to rule over others — as well as to be ruled by others — as bedrock to their own sense of order, that we have to wonder how far this can scale, and to which populations.**

I do not know (with the certainty this word “know” implies) that a fully free society is possible. I do strongly suspect it is not possible with humans as they are — in no small part because we do not have it. Libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer believed that the basic institutions of society must fit the character and circumstances of the people they apply to. People given to crime, panic, servility, and powerlust cannot be free. Alas, give them the institutions to constrain them from their worst crimes but nevertheless allow them to express their worst natures and what do you have? Any progress to betterment? Any progress to freedom?

It depends.

My basic position is that we are now too far from a free society to know how far towards freedom we can successfully move, and how sustainable a complete form can be. Reason editor Jesse Walker dubbed my position agnarchism, a droll portmanteau. I am a philosophical anarchist in one sense, but my fallibilism (or falsificationist epistemic) is such that I accept limits to my knowledge — I am agnostic on many issues. I do not know how far civilized man can peel back the onion of the state.

But I do know a number of things that point strongly in the direction of freedom.

I know, for instance, that the current political-legal order, along with its nearest reform ideologies, is routinely defended by recourse to lies, careless errors, unwarranted fantasies, and bad reasoning; that masked agendas are the most important agendas; that critiques of freedom as a goal or standard are based, chiefly, on ignorance and outrageous displays of repugnance; that folks who blithely go on pressing “morality” into their politics generally live by preference falsification and false consciousness, and incorporate bedrock vices into their conceptions of virtue; that politics as a whole is an ugly business based on strife and exploitation masquerading as peace and justice; and that the people are generally ignorant of the true nature of the society they live in, and cannot think two steps down the chain of causation of any proposal for reform they make.

To use a religious analogy: I do not know my god exists, but I know that other gods are devils, and not merely in the details but also in the Grand Scheme.

This suggests to me that carrying on the advocacy of equal freedom remains a noble cause, and a matter of honesty.

As it is honest to admit the limits of all our knowledge.

* It gets more complicated, but the basic conception is clear. The basic notion is that libertarians insist that the civilized approach to sociality is to demand the same from each, and the least from each, as well. And upon this bedrock set of minimal obligations people can form their lives, which will of course entail many additional obligations — but which they themselves choose.

** The saddest truth is that some people, now, could very easily manage and thrive in a free society, but others by genes and culture and institutional instruction would not. This is an important point, and is really where actual political and ideological discord rests.

N.B. From the above, it should be noted that there can be no guarantee of liberty, for it depends upon reciprocal restraint. When some attempt to destroy us, or rob us, there can be no assurance that they will not succeed. We must strive, at some expense, to prevent the usurpations that abridge our rights to freedom. It should follow that the freer a society is, the less effort will be required to defend freedom.