Kymlicka on Libertarianism: A Response

By Lester, J. C. | Libertarian Papers, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Kymlicka on Libertarianism: A Response


Lester, J. C., Libertarian Papers


Introduction

In his well-known introduction to contemporary political philosophy, (1) Will Kymlicka includes a substantial chapter on libertarianism, plus a preface and introduction that are also relevant to the topic. These sections are likely to help form many readers' opinions regarding libertarian political philosophy. Unfortunately, many of Kymlicka's assumptions and arguments seem to me to be crucially mistaken. As I have no objection to his way of proceeding and organizing his views, I shall respond to Kymlicka's points in the order in which they arise in his text. Consequently, it has proven convenient to divide my reply into sections following Kymlicka's own sections. This should make it easier for anyone to locate and follow Kymlicka's original text and compare it with my responses, should they wish to do so.

Kymlicka's Preface to the Second Edition

In the preface to his book, Kymlicka states that "it is difficult for me to understand why anyone would get involved in the project of political philosophy if they did not think we could make progress" (x). I heartily agree with this sentiment. In social science, and even in the realm of ideology, progress is surely possible. However, progress is not always as obvious as in the physical sciences. And even in the physical sciences errors and dead ends have sometimes been mistaken for progress for a very long time, often decades. Where Kymlicka sees progress in political philosophy, I usually see such errors and dead ends. For instance, he says, "One theme which I emphasized in the first edition was the way each theory could be seen as trying to interpret what it means for governments to show 'equal concern and respect' to their citizens" (x). Unfortunately, this thematic assumption thereby rules out of consideration things that political philosophy urgently needs to consider: specifically, private-property anarchism and a libertarianism that is unconcerned with the emotional demand for "equal concern and respect"; more on these points later. In what follows, I shall isolate what I take to be Kymlicka's key errors with respect to libertarianism, and try to show that they are indeed errors. Kymlicka often repeats himself, and I have tried to avoid repeating my criticisms unless an extra twist seems to be involved, or some emphasis seems desirable.

We are soon given an example of a key error when we are informed that "To date, there have been three main approaches to defending liberal democracy: utilitarianism, liberal equality, and libertarianism" (x). Setting aside utilitarianism and "liberal equality" for the moment, by "liberal democracy" Kymlicka intends 'liberal' in a modern sense that is only tenuously related to what 'liberalism' originally meant, and 'democracy' as some form of what is really elected oligarchy. Consequently, libertarianism is, on the contrary, also one of the main approaches criticizing "liberal democracy." Why does Kymlicka not see this? As we shall see, he has succumbed to an illusion of fundamental agreement.

Kymlicka's Introduction

"1. The Project"

We may now turn to Kymlicka's introduction, where he points out that "Our traditional picture of the political landscape views political principles as falling somewhere on a single line, stretching from left to right" (1). True. But we are then told "people on the left believe in equality, and hence endorse some form of socialism, while those on the right believe in freedom and hence endorse some form of free-market capitalism." This is, at best, only one version of the modern view of left and right. The traditional view, originating in France, had laissez-faire liberals on the left and state-interventionists on the right. It was not a neat and clear division, perhaps, but it is neater and clearer than the muddled modern division that Kymlicka takes to be "traditional." He goes on to discuss problems with the left-right division for some ideologies, (2) but he is happy to call libertarianism "rightwing. …

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