IEET > Fellows
Trouble in Libertopia
Dale Carrico   May 24, 2004   Amor Mundi  

Well-meaning and reasonable persons wandering for the first time into electronic discursive spaces wherein radical technological developments like molecular nanotechnology or genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive enhancement are seriously contemplated and debated, need to be prepared for repeated and unexpected encounters with belligerent young American males (mostly) who will berate them from a perspective they describe as "libertarianism."

Libertarianism in this idiosyncratic, anarcho-capitalist denotation tends to have three primary characteristics:

First, these curious market-fundamentalist libertarians take the incontrovertible righteousness of a commitment to the Non-Initiation of Force as an axiom, and then treat that axiom as a foundation from which to exhaustively characterize what they consider a just, stable, and prosperous social order.

Because the non-initiation principle delineates an essentially negative concept of liberty, I routinely describe these figures as negative libertarians. One could usefully distinguish, for example, purely negative libertarians from civil libertarians for whom a positive conception of liberty is necessary to affirm what is valuable in a human rights culture, or in the support of civic institutions like a separation of church and state, an independent press, vibrant and widely accessible education and so on. (My use of the terms negative and positive here is derived from the canonical formulation by Isaiah Berlin.)

Second, negative libertarians will tend to reduce all conceivable political and public relations to contractual relations (as against acts of force or fraud which they identify as criminal and so anti-political, or acts of love or generosity which they tend to identify as intimate or charitable and so pre-political, or simply not-political).

Third, negative libertarians will tend to identify the outcome of market exchanges as both optimally efficient and optimally fair or just. Of course, what actually counts in the world as a market outcome is in fact profoundly contingent historically and territorially, and depends on a context of agreements, protocols, implicit and explicit norms, and so on. But negative libertarians will tend to describe markets nevertheless as spontaneous upwellings out of human nature or as if emerging from the tidal forces of supply and demand treated as deep and immutable analogues to physical principles like the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Because of their stubbornly provincial misreading of contingent generalizations from the market conditions that prevail in their own neighborhoods as if they delineated eternal principles, I will sometimes describe these negative libertarians likewise as market naturalists. It is among the many ironies of the apparently irresistible allure of market naturalism among negative libertarian technophiles, that many of these ideologues otherwise cultivate a profound suspicion of deployments of the idea of nature to justify customs, institutions, or norms.

Against the purported spontaneity and inevitability of market relations, so-called, the negative libertarians array the countervailing and always-only coercive machineries of national states. They reduce all government to violence and see in governing nothing but violence, and then declare, practically as a matter of fiat, that market outcomes (and typically market behavior will be treated as synechdochic with corporate conduct) non-coercive.

Never mind that extraordinarily many real-world corporations, of course, routinely use physical threats and engage in exploitation and deliver harm in the effort to improve their bottom lines. And never mind that legitimate governments, of course, whatever their flaws, routinely enagage in social administration that is the farthest imaginable thing from physical threat. Once one puts the negative libertarian blinders on every nice social worker and dedicated public servant suddenly becomes a jack-booted thug and every corporate titan, even if he is little better than a mafia don, suddenly becomes a Randian Archetype of boundless benevolent creative energy.

Minarchists and neo-classical liberals will for the most part affirm all three of these three planks as their own worldview, but for whatever reasons, will compromise their applications in certain key areas, usually on utilitarian or strategic political grounds. Typically these compromises are experienced as exceptions that prove the rule rather than deep challenges to the overall correctness of the negative libertarian viewpoint.

While the coterie of technology enthusiasts who espouse market fundamentalism in an undiluted form remains in fact a vanishingly small one (though unbelievably noisy for its scale), it is key to recognize the extent to which the more mainstream neo-liberal and neo-conservative practical and institutional universe, with its incessant drumbeat for deregulation without end, its lust for market discipline for the poor and military-industrial welfare entitlements for the rich remains importantly (and unfortunately) continuous in its assumptions, in its sense of the problems at hand, and in many of its aims with an extreme market fundamentalist negative libertarian world-view this mainstream would presumably and properly explicitly disdain in practice.

For the record, first, though I affirm the non-initiation principle myself, I do not think it is an axiom nor do I think you can erect an adequate social order upon its foundation. Non-initiation is a purely negative conception that will rely for its intelligibility and force on all sorts of implicit (some of them disavowed) positive conceptions of what constitutes initiation in the first place, what counts as force, what is and isn't violation, and a whole host of assumptions about what all of this is good for. For me, defenses of individual autonomy and deep suspicions of authoritarian concentrations of power must be complemented by equally foundational defenses of fairness. Second, I do not think it is even possible to characterize actual contract-making and contract-adhering behavior exclusively in contractual terms, let alone adequately capture all political relations through the figure of the contract. I opt instead for performative metaphors, like the speech act or the citation of scripts/norms as the politically exemplary figure. Third, I know that many so-called market-exchange outcomes are profoundly unfair, that they can occur under conditions of duress that are too easily disavowed.

While I agree that the debate between markets and central planning was concluded in the twentieth century, I believe that regulated markets were the verdict of that debate. The principle of market regulation is itself a norm, not a compromise of a market ideal that does or could function as a norm. There has never been, nor could there ever be a pure market against which one properly arrays an antithetical force of regulation. The modern state is not a sovereign state and its power is not unilateral regulation is always already multilateral in the modern state, and hegemony can recuperate and so tolerate resistences. Negative libertarians seem to me to be enraptured by models of power, authority, consent, autonomy, and exchange that were already hopelessly simplistic by the nineteenth century, let alone the twenty-first.

We can all easily agree that coercion is wrong. We can all agree that the sources of coercion and exploitation inhere in human nature, such as it is, and probably we can agree that conspicuous asymmetries will invite exploitation and abuse. The liberal state seeks to diffuse the worriesome "whip hand" of coercive governance through competing state apparatuses and the multilateral institutions of civic society. Negative libertarians simply define the "whip hand" out of existence by declaring "market" outcomes as non-coercive by fiat. Liberals recognize the abuses of our system as is, but we seek to ameliorate coercion through reform, while market naturalists seem stubbornly wedded to their word-magic and pie-charts.

To what can we attribute the ongoing allure of the sadly sociopathic libertarian imaginary, especially to American technophiles? Perhaps it is a matter of technical-minded people who prefer the clarity of reproducible results to the ongoing and unpredictable reconciliation of contending ends among the multiple stakeholders to social problems. Perhaps it is a matter of the elitism of the highly educated or the early adopters, or the more straightforward elitism of people who believe that they are innately superior and hence will always be among the winners in any outcome where there are winners and losers. Perhaps it is simply the commonplace disavowal by the privileged of the extent to which individual accomplishment inevitably depends on the maintenance of social norms, enforced laws and material infrastructure beyond itself.

Lately, I have begun to suspect that at the temperamental core of the strange enthusiasm of many technophiles for so-called "anarcho-capitalist" dreams of re-inventing the social order, is not finally so much a craving for liberty but for a fantasy, quite to the contrary, of TOTAL EXHAUSTIVE CONTROL. This helps account for the fact that negative libertarian technophiles seem less interested in discussing the proximate problems of nanoscale manufacturing and the modest benefits they will likely confer, but prefer to barrel ahead to paeans to the "total control over matter." They salivate over the title of the book From Chance to Choice (in fact, a fine and nuanced bioethical accounting of benefits and quandaries of genetic medicine), as if biotechnology is about to eliminate chance from our lives and substitute the full determination of morphology -- when it is much more likely that genetic interventions will expand the chances we take along with the choices we make. Behind all their talk of efficiency and non-violence there lurks this weird micromanagerial fantasy of sitting down and actually contracting explicitly the terms of every public interaction in the hopes of controlling it, getting it right, dictating the details. As if the public life of freedom can be compassed in a prenuptual agreement, as if communication would proceed more ideally were we first to re-invent language ab initio (ask these liber-techians how they feel about Esperanto or Loglan and you will see that this analogy, often enough, is not idle).

But with true freedom one has to accept an ineradicable vulnerability and a real measure of uncertainty. We live in societies with peers, boys. Give up the dreams of total invulnerability, total control, total specification. Take a chance, live a little. Fairness is actually possible. Justice is in our reach. Radical technological development regulated to ensure that costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly shared can emancipate the world. Liberty is so much less than freedom.
Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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