Review of Thrasher on libertarianism and contractarianism

In this post, we will review John Thrasher’s intriguing essay on the relation between libertarian theory and social contract theory, one of the best essays in the collection of essays published in the new Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. (Professor Thrasher is a philosopher at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.) Among other things, Thrasher identifies two fundamental problems with libertarian theory (emphasis by us): “The first is the foundational problem of whether to base libertarian conclusions on some deontological basis (e.g., natural rights) or to adopt a consequentialist justification. The second is how to square a strong presumption against coercion with any system of collective choice and governance, that is, how to adjudicate between the anarchist and minimal government strands in libertarian thought.” In other words, what are the moral foundations of libertarian theory? (Is there, for example, an absolute moral duty to respect a person’s liberty and property?) And secondly, how does one reconcile the libertarian fetish for liberty as the sine qua non of politics against the reality that all laws limit or restrict our freedoms in one way or another?

For his part, Prof Thrasher offers a Rawlsian or contractarian solution to both of these theoretical problems. In fact, according to Thrasher, social contract theory is able to solve both of these foundational problems at once. How? Simply put, by basing the moral foundations of libertarianism on social contract theory, and not on absolute Kantian moral duties or relativistic Humean consequentialism, any restriction on our liberties would thus be self-imposed–the product of a purely voluntary social contract. In the words of Dr Thrasher, “If rational individuals have reason to endorse and comply with the rules in a contractual society, we can then use the contractual test to evaluate the rules and institutions of our own society. The social contract acts as a tool to evaluate existing and possible social rules and institutions.”

Putting aside the fact that such a social contract is a complete fiction (cf. David Hume’s classic essay, “On the original contract”), there is another major blind spot with Prof Thrasher’s social contract solution. After all, even if we were to agree with him that “agreement is the only basis of a free society,” we still have to answer the following foundational question of social contract theory: what is the moral basis of the social contract itself? (That is, “the foundational problem of whether to base libertarian conclusions on some deontological basis (e.g., natural rights) or to adopt a consequentialist justification” that Thrasher identifies in relation to libertarian theory applies equally to social contract theory as well!) Likewise, the second problem of libertarianism that Thrasher identifies (“how to square a strong presumption against coercion with any system of collective choice and governance”) also applies to social contract theory. After all, in the real world, courts routinely interfere with or refuse to enforce many agreements for reasons of public policy or when such bargains are illegal. So unfortunately for Thrasher (and for Rawls), social contract theory does not get us very far …

Image result for rawls social contract theory

Credit: Curtis Narimatsu

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One Response to Review of Thrasher on libertarianism and contractarianism

  1. Pingback: Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism | prior probability

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