Libertarianism

Libertarianism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 18 1997 12:30 AM

Libertarianism

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Dear Charles Murray,

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       I did not mean to evade your question about the relation between individual freedom and vibrant, effective communities. But the case for community is, at least in part, a moral claim. It depends on the idea that fellow citizens owe certain responsibilities to one another in virtue of sharing a common life. These obligations of membership are not unlimited and may be contestable. In fact, much political debate is about what the relevant community is (since we inhabit a wide range of overlapping, sometimes conflicting communities), and about what obligations our membership entails.
       But the libertarian position, as I understand it, denies that we are claimed by any obligations beyond the duty to respect other people's natural rights. On this view, I owe nothing to my fellow citizens that I do not owe everyone in the world as a matter of natural right; with respect to community, I owe only what I agree to owe, through contracts or acts of consent.
       Libertarians want "vital, effective communities," but without any obligations of solidarity or membership. To allow the possibility of such obligations, you fear, is to allow the possibility that citizens could act, through democratic means, to translate moral obligations into political ones. This, you fear, would constitute a violation of individual freedom (as in the example of taxation I offered). I doubt, as a practical matter, that communities lacking in any sense of shared moral responsibility can be vital and effective. That is why I was asking you to clarify what the moral status of communal obligation consists of.
       As I understand your position, you view these arguments of principle as more or less beside the point you wish to emphasize, which is more practical. Community is a good thing, you think, but only insofar as it does not find expression in governmental action. Big government suffocates community and violates individual freedom. But I was trying to suggest that, if you reflect on the view of obligation that underlies your position, then you need to argue against more than big government. You need also to argue against state and local government--indeed against any collective action, from neighborhoods on up, that expresses or enforces a sense of mutual obligation.
       One need not be a libertarian to worry about the inefficiencies, abuses, or disempowering effects of big government. But one cannot be a libertarian, or so it seems to me, and still make the case for a vision of political community that expresses the mutual obligations of citizenship. Whether local, national, or transnational, community without obligation is too thin and pale a thing to inspire a vital, democratic public life.

Sincerely,
Michael Sandel

Charles Murray is a Bradley fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Excerpts of his book are available on the MSNBC Web site. Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard University and author of Democracy's Discontent: America In Search of a Public Philosophy.