Sunday, February 21, 2010

Floor Fees and Thick Libertarianism

Readers of this blog, especially those who have long since concluded that partisan politics is useless or worse, can be pardoned if they’ve avoided reading about or participating in the ongoing dispute over the tentative decision to charge a floor fee to delegates participating in the 2010 Libertarian National Convention.

I think the debate is worth attending to, though, for anyone who cares about the conversation focused on “thick” or “cultural” libertarianism.

That’s because more than one participant in the floor fee debate has clearly emphasized that certain kinds of practices in voluntary organizations don’t seem to fit comfortably with libertarian principles.

Typically, proponents of “plumb-line” libertarianism maintain that any conduct that is consistent with the non-aggression principle is unexceptionable from a libertarian standpoint, even if there may be good reason to object to it on other grounds. Some go even farther, seeming to dismiss objections to conduct that is consistent with the NAP as reflective of essentially arbitrary cultural or æsthetic preferences.

Comments made in the course of the floor fee debate suggest that thoughtful libertarians instinctively disagree.

Thus, for instance, David Nolan observes that he believes “there’s a strong INVERSE correlation between a person’s eagerness to cite Robert’s Rules of Order and their gut-level devotion to liberty. RR is a procedural manual, devised to maintain order at large and otherwise unwieldy meetings. It is not a code of law, and I instinctively distrust anyone who revels in its minutiae.”

Obviously, any voluntary organization should be free to adopt and follow Robert’s Rules of Order. And a critic of thick libertarianism might well say that nothing else really needed saying. But Nolan’s comment suggests that he thinks caring about freedom means caring about more than just the baseline question whether disputes are resolved at gunpoint. Perhaps this is because it’s hard, psychically, to care about freedom from aggression if one doesn’t care about freedom from arbitrary impositions by voluntary organizations, so that cultivating the habit of resisting such impositions is a necessary preparation for resisting aggressions. Or perhaps a preference for freedom of movement within a voluntary organization flows from the same moral principle or sensibility that grounds opposition to aggression. Or perhaps the explanation lies elsewhere. The point is that, as Nolan rightly sees, being a friend of freedom means more than just being an opponent of aggression.

Or consider this set of observations from Carolyn Marbry: “Does anyone else find it ironic to the point of tragedy that the LIBERTARIAN party is so rule bound and governed to death that it’s being held hostage by professional registered parliamentarian high priests on this point . . . ? What could possibly be the problem with leaving this rather important deviation from precedent to be decided by the delegates in St. Louis, rather than ramming it down the throats of the party under the guise of appeal to authority? Wasn’t this the same group of folks who said that what was done to Lee Wrights was legitimate before the party’s own judicial committee tossed it out? These people are NOT Libertarians (which, I understand, is why they were consulted in the first place), they’re apparently NOT familiar with our philosophy (e.g., opposing taxes and favoring SMALLER government with LESS POWER, power concentrated at the lower eschelons of government if not entirely with the governed rather than at the top…) . . . .”

Again: not being “rule bound and governed to death” is, Marbry rightly emphasizes, a problem in a voluntary organization, as is “ramming . . . [a decision] down . . . [people’s] throats . . . under the guise of appeal to authority.” The basic libertarian political conviction that what matters is “SMALLER government with LESS POWER, power concentrated at the lower eschelons of government if not entirely with the governed rather than at the top” is obviously relevant, Marbry realizes, to the ways in which a purely voluntary society operates. That’s because, I would argue, an underlying philosophy of freedom comes to expression both in opposition to aggressive violence and in a commitment to giving people in any context as much opportunity as possible to make the decisions that affect their lives, rather than being subject to decisions made by others.

The same point is made repeatedly in related contexts. One proponent of the floor fee has argued that “pay as you go” and “don’t subsidize” are basic libertarian principles—not just limits on the behavior of the state. And another libertarian stressed to me recently that commitment to a style of party organization reflective of support for Lenin’s “democratic centralism” is itself un-libertarian.

What this admittedly unscientific sample suggests to me is that thick libertarianism is not an exercise in leftist subterfuge: it’s the common sense of many libertarians, who see no reason to isolate their more narrowly political convictions from their sense of fairness more broadly.

Being a libertarian means more (though never less) than being opposed to settling disputes with guns. It means caring about freedom, and freedom can be suppressed within voluntary organizations and relationships. Libertarians who aren’t radicals clearly understand that there’s a non-arbitrary consonance, something that extends beyond mere æsthetic or cultural preference, between libertarian politics and concern for freedom even when it’s not being infringed on violently. The point that people snarkily dismiss “thickists” for making seems intuitively obvious to ordinary libertarians (if there are such creatures) who don’t spend most of their free time reading Charles Johnson or Kevin Carson or even Kerry Howley. I think that’s a good sign.


Roderick T. Long said...

Here's Rothbard, in his New Left days, on how libertarians should favour participatory democracy in private organizations:

Gary Chartier said...

That Rothbard! What a commie!

MBH said...

I can't help but give my knee-jerk response to your piece before I read the Rothbard paper.

This is beautiful Gary. And it's exactly why the Rothbard of the Mises Institute is so damn confusing. His critique of Keynes is pinpointed on an anti-rule-following mode. But if anti-violence has a modal source at all, it's certainly the anti-rule-following mode. UGH! {Shaking fists at Mises Institute door}

{Deep breath}

[Hyperventilation off]OK.[/Hyperventilation off]

nfactor13 said...

I've noticed this personality trait amongst certain friends where there seems to be a strong preference for order (perhaps more accurately, 'predictability [of process]') that supersedes any other ethical concerns. Or maybe it's more charitable to frame it as, 'without some strong sense of order, there's no guarantee that any of my other ethical agendas will have a reasonable chance of success." Thus, those with a fondness for Robert's Rules may simply be very averse to uncertainty in human interactions. The larger the crowd, the more reassurance they need of the predictability of at least the procedural constraints on possible interactions.
I'm very much not that sort of person, almost the complete opposite, but I'd be hard pressed to say that liberty or libertarianism is only open to people with similar social preferences to my own. I could certainly believe there is a negative correlation between the Order-philic and the libertarian-minded, though.

Brian Holtz said...

For the record, the argument for the authority (as opposed to the wisdom) to require a registration fee is excruciatingly straightforward:

1. LP Bylaw 11(3) mentions delegate registration as an extra step beyond accreditation by an affiliate: “At all Regular Conventions delegates shall be those so accredited who have registered at the Convention.”
2. Nothing in the LP Bylaws specifies the details of the registration process.
3. LP Bylaw 13: “The rules contained in the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised shall govern the Party in all cases to which they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with these bylaws”.
4. RRONR p. 593 says the registration process “normally includes” “paying the registration fee”.

That registration-fee opponents nevertheless tried to call the fee a rule violation shows just how little confidence they had in their argument that non-conventioneer dues-payers should pay for the meeting facilities of conventioneers.

The real "irony" here was in how many self-described libertarians argued that because libertarians oppose being bound by the state's laws, we should also oppose being bound by the rules we voluntarily adopt.