"We don't have choice if people are just left to their own devices" | Bleader

Monday, January 15, 2007

"We don't have choice if people are just left to their own devices"

Posted By on 01.15.07 at 07:23 AM

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Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago political philosopher, finds few opportunities to think carefully in public in this country because "the media are so sensationalistic and so anti-intellectual.... The New York Times op-ed page is very dumbed down, and I no longer even bother trying to get something published there, because they don't like anything that has a complicated argument."

But thanks to the Internet, even Americans can read what she thinks in a long interview in Eurozine, where, among other things, she contrasts liberalism and libertarianism.

"It's a hallmark of liberalism that ideas of choice and freedom are really very, very important.  Of course I think one has to stress that we don't have choice if people are just left to their own devices. The state has to act positively to create the conditions for choice. I think the libertarian position is actually quite incoherent.

"If you go out into the rural areas of Bihar in India, then you see what 'negative liberty' [a libertarian ideal] comes to. Total chaos, where nothing is being done, where there are no roads, no clean water supply, no electricity, and therefore where no one can do anything, no one has anything. I am sure my colleague Richard Epstein will agree, up to a point, that a state that's going to create liberty has got to act, has at least got to protect property rights and contracts and have a police force and a fire department. But then why draw the line at that? Why not also say that the State has to create public education, has to create the systems of social welfare that makes it possible for people to access health care, unemployment benefits, and so on? So I don't see any principled way of dividing those different spheres of state action.

"I have no objection to saying that the State could sometimes delegate part of its function to the private sphere when it judges that that's sufficient, but I do want to say that the State is the one that bears the final responsibility. The State is a system for the allocation of human basic entitlements. Its job is to promote justice and wellbeing for human beings; if it's simply delegated to private industry and that doesn't work, then the State hasn't done its job."

One short corollary: the people in charge of privatizing welfare or education or hurricane relief have to actually care that those jobs are done right, so that they won't hesitate to unprivatize them as needed.

(Hat tip to Butterflies & Wheels.)

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