XI KANT KONGRESS, XI Congresso Kantiano Internazionale

Kant and Libertarianism

Howard Williams

Edificio: Palazzo dei Congressi
Sala: sala Newton
Data: 22 maggio 2010 - 14:30
Ultima modifica: 11 aprile 2010


Kant and Libertarianism

Libertarians place the individual at the centre of their political outlook. They stress the need to allow individual freedom to flourish and argue that all social institutions that hamper this should be restrained and minimized. Like anarchists, libertarians are thoroughly anti-statist but are more prepared than anarchists to accept the necessity for a minimum form of state organisation. Libertarianism is a modern outlook, presupposing the emergence of modern individuality and the institution of private property with the breakdown of feudalism. Each contemporary libertarian thinker will have as their model a particular favourite thinker, but John Locke’s political philosophy is often a significant starting-point, as is John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. Two well-known twentieth century political philosophers who have been connected with libertarianism are Friedrich Hayek and Robert Nozick.
Individual freedom is at the core of libertarian political philosophy. According to the libertarian, initiatives should derive from individuals and any necessary social organisations that are created should reflect and facilitate this. From the libertarian’s perspective ceding freedom represents a loss of independence, personality and scope for action. As social and political organisations grow in their power and influence libertarians see individuals as diminished in their freedom. Libertarians are not in favour of reciprocity between public institutions and individual freedom but instead favour a subordination of institutions to individuals.
Kant can be seen as sharing some of the libertarians concern about the significance of liberty and the dangers of the subjugation of individuality to public power. However, he does not wholly share their antipathy to the state, nor does he share the sense of absolute priority that should be given to individual freedom over other considerations, such as equality and community, that they do. As I see it, there are libertarian strands to Kant’s political philosophy but they are counterbalanced by other more significant strands, such as the extraordinary mix he tries to bring about between patriotism and cosmopolitanism.
Where the libertarian strand is apparent in Kant’s thinking is in his strong dislike of paternalism in politics. One of the prime functions of the social order is for it to facilitate human liberty which consists in individuals being free to pursue their happiness in their own way. As Kant puts it in the essay ‘On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is no use in practice’: ‘Each may seek his happiness in the way that seems good to him, provided he does not infringe upon that freedom of others to strive for a like end.’ (8: 290/291) Kant goes on to say, in a manner that would gladden the heart of any libertarian that ‘a government established on the principle of benevolence toward the people like that of a father toward his children’ is ‘the greatest despotism thinkable’. (8: 290/291) But Kant’s answer to this problem is not to keep government wholly at bay in the manner of the libertarian but to seek to help bring into being a patriotic government. Kant sees a powerful reciprocity between individual freedom and state authority. He is not a libertarian because he sees our right freedom belonging to us as a ‘member of a commonwealth’ from which we have arisen and ‘which we must leave behind as a cherished pledge’. (8: 291/291-2)
Kant’s position is broadly compatible with Robert Nozick’s view that ‘individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).’ (Anarchy, the State and Utopia, ix) However Kant’s position leads to a different interpretation being put on the role the possessive verb ‘have’ plays in this sentence. For Kant the claim that individuals naturally have rights is primarily a moral claim around which political institutions have to be erected rather than an existentialist or ontological claim that denotes an already established state of affairs. Kant’s view can be taken to be more along the lines that all human individuals potentially possess rights, such as the right of ownership or the right of free speech; however the historical conditions for their realization represent an arbitrary factor which the theory itself cannot control. Thus the ideal theory has to be confronted with the historically inherited situation where we have to see how ‘our’ rights as rational beings should be realized. Whereas the libertarian Nozick homes in on the individual, and deploys John Locke’s political philosophy, to see how the individual’s rights can be made compatible with those of others Kant equally does this but also pays strong regard to the inherited social conditions. Where a civil society is already in existence (however rudimentary) we have to seek to reform it to bring the ideal arrangements into being. So in Kant’s political philosophy the individual and the society are the joint central actors in seeking to realise the ideal arrangements. The individual who has rights with Kant is already the socialized individual.
Looking at Kant’s thinking in the light of libertarian philosophy in this way is motivated by several readings of my Kant’s Political Philosophy (Oxford/New York, 1983) which suggest that in some key passages I present a picture of Kant as a libertarian political thinker. Partly in my contribution to this volume on Practical Justification in Kant I shall try to show that an alternative reading of Kant’s Political Philosophy is possible which presents him more as a solidarist thinker. Partly also in my contribution I shall try to develop this understanding of Kant as a solidarist thinker more fully by looking closely at the idea of reciprocity under law. This is an important theme in Kant’s writings which was somewhat overlooked in my earlier work and leads to a limited picture of social welfare provision. In the Metaphysics of Morals accords the state a significant role in the alleviation of poverty and suggests several lines of economic intervention which aim at a more rational form of the distribution of property. I want to explore closely Kant’s justification for this and demonstrate how it distances him from the libertarian model of political thought.