My primary problem with libertarianism is that it does not go far enough.
I am suspicious of governments exercising power over people, sure. But I am also and equally suspicious of corporations, non-governmental organizations, unions, and other people exercising power over people. My suspicion is not of governments; it’s of power. I believe that humans should have the absolute maximum freedom possible, given resource constraints and other practical problems, without interfering with the ability of other people to exercise that freedom.
(Note: some people will say “then why aren’t you an anarchist?” Because observably whenever one gets rid of a government one does not get rid of power relations; one just makes it so that the most powerful person in the area is whoever has the most weaponry and willingness to kill, and without the safeguards a government offers about use of force. This, needless to say, does not maximize freedom.)
A lot of people tend to justify limiting freedom by pointing out that it’s for the people’s own good. People are, in general, fairly dumb. We get tricked by pseudoscience and date people who are bad for us and refuse to exercise and say “yes, the last five years I didn’t do my New Year’s Resolution but this year will be different!” By any measure, humans are really bad at decision-making. Surely it makes sense to have someone smart constrain people’s choices so they have to do what makes them happy?
The problem lies in “someone smart.” As of yet, we have not invented any hyperintelligent computers; therefore, anyone who exercises power is going to be a person, and therefore dumb. Our ability to identify non-dumb is fairly low: fifty percent of Harvard students cannot correctly answer the question “if a bat and a ball cost $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” (Try that question at home!) In fact, I discover as I read that article I just Googled as a citation for the Harvard thing, more cognitively sophisticated people may be more prone to cognitive biases, which is an absolutely terrifying result that gives me nightmares.
(Of course, there are a lot of cognitive biases and forms of self-delusion that people are less susceptible to in other people’s cases than they are in their own– for instance, you’re more likely to correctly guess how long it’ll take someone else to do something than how long it’ll take you. My intuition is that this is not a major factor a lot of the time, but I could be wrong, in which case I’d have to change about half of the things I believe. Anyway, “people are consistently dumb about this and we can nudge them into making correct decisions” is a sufficient justification for constraining people’s choices on a case-by-case basis. Thus, opt-out of organ donation, not opt-in.)
Given that humans are dumb, the average person is much better at seeking their own happiness than they are anyone else’s. If you’re trying to seek someone else’s happiness, you have divided loyalties: the other person’s happiness and your own. If you’re an elected official, then you want what’s best for your country but also you want to get re-elected and make lots of money; naturally, these will sometimes conflict. If, however, your primary job is seeking your own happiness, then divided loyalties are not an issue.
If you limit people’s freedom, you end up treating different people the same way. (No duh.) An individual can choose to work midnight to eight am if that’s when they do their best work, but a business has to make everyone work from nine to five.* A social norm has to say “everyone is only allowed to have one partner,” but an individual can choose to honestly and openly date multiple people. Given that people are diverse, a “people freely choose things” plan allows more scope for different people being happy in different ways than a “people follow these rules” plan.
In short: I think you should not constrain people’s choices without a Damn Good Reason. “It interferes with other people’s freedom”? Good reason. “It hurts other people in ways they would not like”? Good reason. “We can’t actually afford to pay everyone an infinite amount of money without the economy falling apart”? Good reason. “…because?” Not a good reason. If you do limit people’s freedom, limit it as little as possible– don’t pass a law when a social norm will do, don’t force people into organ donation when defaulting to organ donation will do.
Tomorrow: how this all relates to social justice!
*Obviously, there are sometimes good reasons for the “everyone works nine to five” rule, such as people having to communicate with each other.