While searching through old posts at Against Politics, one of my common haunts, I came across an interview featuring Jan Narveson, professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Narveson, whose work I encountered via the work of Robert Nozick and David Gauthier, is an anarcho-capitalist and the author of the influential The Libertarian Idea. Among other things, Dr. Narveson addresses in the interview why natural rights should be rejected and offers his list of the most influential texts in libertarian political philosophy. Here is the link to the interview, a significant portion of which I excerpt here:
The contractarian and utilitarian approaches to libertarianism are often confused. What are the differences between these two views?
Contractarian is not the same as utilitarian, and does not give similar results. The Utilitarian, as in Bentham and Mill, holds that (1) everyone’s utility is cardinally measurable, in principle, and (2) for social and moral purposes, we should count an equal amount of anyone’s utility as equal to anyone else’s, intrinsically.
Utilitarianism is, actually, equivalent to another natural rights perspective—that’s why I stopped being a utilitarian.
Why have you abandoned utilitarianism?
A first essential point to see here is that individuals do not normally regard other people’s utility as having equal weight to their own (to put it mildly!). The significance of this point is what, I think, escaped me when I was first an enthusiastic utilitarian.
Of course, even to say that people aren’t like that is to assume that interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible and meaningful, and many have severe doubts about this (and for quite good reason). But the point is that even if it is possible, people aren’t like that. If Jones responds to his perception of Smith’s utility, say out of sympathy, then Jones has a special utility function in relation to Smith – for example, he, Jones, feels bad, upon perceiving that Smith feels bad, and so on.
If Albert thinks he’s a utilitarian (like Peter Singer, say) and tries to respond to his perception of everyone’s utility along the lines prescribed by the classical utilitarian principle (which calls for the maximization of aggregated cardinal interpersonally comparable utility), then he’s a very unusual person. For the rest of us, we will respond to others only as a function of our perception of how they actually or potentially affect ourselves. The modifications of our behavior that we might make as a result will be rational to make, and will probably be made, only on a basis of mutuality: you scratch my back, I scratch yours; you refrain from violence to me, I refrain from it to you. But the idea that I will do as much to advance your interests as I would if they were actually mine is absurd, and that is what classical utilitarianism seems to call for.
Now, in order to hold that people have a right to have their utility evaluated by all others at cardinal-par, one would have to take it that there was some reason for this other than one’s own utility, since the two are obviously not identical. But any basis for action for individual X that doesn’t suspend, in the end, from X’s own utility qualifies as intuitionistic or “natural rights” in the sense in which many people use the latter term. It also thereby qualifies the theory for rejection, I now think.
A last question: Could you indicate 10 books (not more) that are fundamental to understanding libertarian ideas, and that could perhaps persuade young people to adopt a libertarian viewpoint?
Besides Nozick and (of course!) my book, I think of these:
- David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom.
- Charles Murray’s little book, What is Means to be a Libertarian is wonderful, and very readable.
- Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty.
- Ludwig von Mises’ Liberalism.
- David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement. David still thinks he is not a libertarian, though I think he should be! But it’s a great book about fundamental moral theory.
- Anthony de Jasay’s recent book, Social Contract, Free Ride, is slightly technical, but really excellent. Also the same author’s Choice, Contract, and Consent.
- David Schmidtz, The Limits of Government.
- On the practical side, James L. Payne, Overcoming Welfare (Basic Books, 1998)
- On the theoretical side: David Ramsay Steele, From Marx to Mises—which will cure any thoughtful person willing to spend the effort of any tendency to think there is anything at all to Marxist or more generally socialist theory.
- Randey Barnett, The Structure of Liberty.