A recent discussion in a friend’s thread has me questioning whether the notion of “libertarianism” is even vaguely useful. The basic notion is of course to get government out of the way of individual freedom, but “freedom” is always loosely defined by libertarians with the whole “your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose” thing.
I assert that the notion of harming another human being is too vague to be useful for defining a political philosophy. A classic dilemma is abortion. While many left-libertarians find laws against abortion offensive, the reality is that many right-libertarians, because of their assumption that a fetus (or even embryo) is already a human being, consider it to be murder, and thus banning it would not contradict their libertarian sensibilities.
I suspect that many libertarians will say that actual physical injury or the loss or damaging of property is the standard for what is “harmful”. Many would support laws against slander and libel, because reputation and public perception is recognized as an economic resource, and for someone to defame your character through lies is considered a form of force being used against that resource.
But aren’t there other economic resources as well, such as opportunity? Libertarians will complain that affirmative action programs represent an unfair intrusion on the part of government. But didn’t years of racism and malignant policies on the part of the government do a great deal to deny opportunities to minorities? (I leave aside for the moment the innumerable sins against minorities on the part of the private sector, because to dare challenge private enterprise against a libertarian is a waste of time. At least they can usually be made to agree about the evils performed by government.)
Certainly, some libertarians may concede, opportunities for minorities have been badly set back; but I didn’t vote for those; I wasn’t even born. So why should my taxes have to support them, or why should quota systems be in place which might deny me the opportunity? Because we, collectively, are the descendants of people who benefited from this wrongful system at the expense of minorities.
If my parent owes a ton of debts, before I get to inherit the estate, I have to ensure those debts are paid. They aren’t my debts, but they do cut into my inheritance. Maybe I’m not obliged to pay from my own money if my parent’s estate isn’t big enough, but in such a case there should definitely not be anything left for me to inherit. Yet non-minorities in America have done just that: inherited a society which favors them and denies opportunities to minorities in so many ways, without first repairing the debts to the wronged people, or to their descendants.
I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent with affirmative action here, but my point is to show that as soon as you try to argue that economic property is 1. a fit thing for protection by government intervention and 2. capable of existing in an abstract, difficult to quantify form such as reputation, you have opened Pandora’s Box and your libertarian ideal becomes a useless slippery slope.
I have not demonstrated it here, but I suspect similarly that one can show all sorts of manners of emotional harm which should be prohibited by government, and that gets into all sorts of topics that some libertarians would probably rather not deal with (such as sexual harassment or the pretended right of private enterprises to deny their services to minorities or indeed anyone).
I stopped calling myself a libertarian a few years ago and I’m increasingly at pains to understand why anyone who prides themselves on being a thinking person would do so. The plain facts of reality should show at a glance that reality itself is too damn complicated for such simplistic philosophies as “freedom ends with my nose.”