Tuesday, March 19, 2013

First Account for Me: Libertarianism and Facts

There is a monologue toward the end of Peter Schaffer’s play Equus which I find fascinating. Dr. Martin Dysart is a psychologist dealing with a case he finds particularly disturbing. It forces him to rethink the entire foundation of his life’s work. He says of the case:

“It asks questions I've avoided all my professional life. A child is born into a world of phenomena, all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs, it sucks, it strokes its eyes over the whole, uncountable range. Suddenly, one strikes. Then another. Then another. Why? Moments snap together,like magnets forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can, with time, pull them apart again. But why, at the start, they were ever magnetized at all...just those particular moments of experience and no others—I do not know. And nor does anybody else! If I don't know—if I can never know -what am I doing here? I don't mean clinically or socially doing, but fundamentally. These whys, these questions, are fundamental. Yet they have no place in a consulting room. So then, do I? Do any of us? This is the feeling, more and more within me—No Place. Displacement. ‘Account for me’...says staring Equus. ‘First, account for me!’"

I use this as an introduction to a particular kind of libertarian. Libertarians like to think in terms of principles—which is important. Some assume, however, that once a principle is adopted it is immune to facts and they need not consider them. I had one libertarian argue that “principles” exist so we don’t have to think about facts. I’m sorry, but they seem to have confused fundamentalist Christianity with libertarianism.

First, it is damn difficult to get principles right if facts are wrong. Principles are derived from facts. Add wrong facts together and the principle is not just in error, but could be damn lethal. There are many principles that are deadly and being a libertarian doesn’t make your principles automatically beneficial.

Second, all principles are tested by facts. If new facts seem to contradict your principles, you have to consider whether the principle needs adjusting. Facts test theories. If the theories don’t hold up against the facts, the rational conclusion is that the theories are wrong. Fundamentalists just dismiss inconvenient facts.

The “fact” ought to be inside your head screaming, “Account for me! First account for me!”

It is fine to use principles to make decisions when existing facts are consistent with them. Adding new facts changes nothing unless they contradict the principle. A principle, once accepted, is not set in cement, it is always open to question if new evidence contradicts it.

Fundamentalist libertarians go wrong when they think their principles are set in cement and ignore facts to their beliefs. They have ceased to be rational libertarians and have become faith-based libertarians.