Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On Abortion Rights, Cato Is Bullshit

I see that Cato has added anti-abortion guys Tucker Carlson and Nat Hentoff to its ranks. I've been complimentary of Cato in the past for supporting unpopular positions liberals and libertarians can agree on, like stopping the drug war that's ripping apart Mexico and urban America.

But look, Cato people. This is bullshit.

I get some of the basic intuitions that make libertarianism go. I understand that people don't want the government wiretapping them. I see how people could be unhappy with the deal they're getting when the government takes away a big chunk of their annual income for a bunch of services. I get how it'd annoy you if there was some mutually agreeable contract you wanted to make and the government stopped you, or if onerous regulations blocked a beneficial way for you to develop your business. I get how you might not like the government telling you what you could smoke or drink or snort. Having no need for additional protection or a symbolic extra penis, I don't really get the gun thing, but I can see how some people get into it.

But you know what would be worse than having the government deny your liberty in any of these ways? If the government made you grow a creature your abdomen for nine months, despite the fact that you desperately didn't want it to be there and there was a simple way for it to be taken out. If this weren't a core part of the policy agenda of the until-recently-dominant political party, it'd sound like the premise of some kind of wacky sci-fi dystopia.

Look, you can tap my phone. You can overtax me and hedge my business in with weird regulations. You can keep me from smoking or drinking or snorting stuff. And, guns, whatever. But please, don't force unwilling people to grow other people inside their tummies for nine months. Here's David Boaz getting all upset about how pro-choicers aren't cool with the whole libertarian program and its focus on choice. There's a reason for that, Mr. Boaz. It's because all the other rights you mention look pretty darned trivial compared to the one at stake in the abortion debate. Who a lady can hire is negotiable. Whether the government can force her to grow a living creature inside her abdomen is not.

If there were a solid case for an early-term fetus having even the faintest glimmer of a mind, that would make a difference. You might have to do some heavy stuff when a creature capable of reason and feeling is located inside another creature capable of reason and feeling. Fortunately, we aren't faced with that problem, since the neural circuitry for something as simple as experiencing pain doesn't show up until the end of the second trimester. Bringing in the law in after that might not be unreasonable. But abortions that late are almost always done because the mother's life or health is at risk, giving us reasons not to constrain doctors unnecessarily.

Cato does have people -- well, one person, Sigrid Fry-Revere -- who gets the size of the rights violation involved in banning abortion. But mostly, it isn't an issue they care a lot about. While this guy says he's pro-choice, his article is about how abortion isn't as big a deal as other stuff. Plenty of the commentary is of the "oh you say you're pro-choice, but why do you support public arts funding" variety.

Which shows you something. When it comes to one of the most central and obvious cases -- whether the law can force an unwilling person to grow another creature inside her body for nine months -- feminists have a much better grip on individual rights than so-called libertarians.


Anonymous said...

While I'd say there's broad agreement in the libertarian camp regarding economics, civil liberties, foreign policy, and the drug war, there is no such consensus on abortion.

Having said that, I'd argue that, regardless of his views on abortion, Nat Hentoff is a valuable ally to have on civil liberties and free speech issues, and without reading the release I'd bet that's why Cato hired him. Tucker Carlson? Beats me. I only know him from my time (mis)spent watching cable gabfests, and he always seemed to me to be a bit of a clown (maybe it's the bowtie - it's hard to take a grown man seriously when he's wearing a bowtie, except as part of formal wear).

Amanda Marcotte said...

It's obvious to me that libertarians don't generally include women in their group of citizens with rights worth protecting. Even female libertarians like Megan McArdle, while feeling pro-their own rights, have accepted that the libertarian movement is driven by a lot of bitter men with massive misogynist tendencies. In fact, I'd argue that libertarianism wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for sexism and racism---it's born right out of the realization that maintaining systems of injustice is easier if women and racial minorities can't appeal to government protection of our rights.

It's true that anyone who claims to be libertarian and is anti-choice is intellectually bankrupt. But they were anyway.

Jacob said...

I don't agree that anti-choice libertarians are "intellectually bankrupt". If you start from the assumption that a fetus is a person, then its no more intellectually bankrupt for a libertarian to be anti-choice then it is for a libertarian to be anti-murder.

Now that's not an assumption that I share: fetuses are fetuses, and women should have a right to choose what to do with her own body. But if you're a religious libertarian and believe that a fetus is a baby then you're wrong – you're not "intellectually bankrupt."

Neil Sinhababu said...

Anonymous, I agree that there isn't a broad consensus among libertarians on abortion. What that shows is that libertarians are bullshit.

I don't think Nat Hentoff is a valuable ally -- we can make a couple more of him real easy. Or, I guess he's a valuable ally insofar as he's valuable to the other team, in an "even the liberal Nat Hentoff says..." kind of way. In any event, at least he's off our payroll.

Jacob, libertarians have access to a bunch of arguments against abortion that other people may not. According to libertarianism, you don't have to assist other people if you don't want to. So here's this other person who's shown up inside your body and is imposing serious costs on you. Do you have to just keep paying those costs? I'm okay with requiring people to pay big costs to help others they don't really care about. They aren't.

Anyway, Cato-style libertarians are educated enough to find the fetal development research on JAMA and update their views about whether a fetus is a person accordingly.

Amanda Marcotte said...

Even if you do assume that a young fetus is a person---which alone is so stupid and evidence-free an assertion as to mark one as intellectually bankrupt---it doesn't matter, from a libertarian perspective. I have yet to meet a libertarian who doesn't think you're full well within your rights to shoot someone trespassing on your land. Someone who isn't even a someone yet trespassing on your body has even less rights than that.

Unless you assume women are not human. Which is the working assumption of anti-choicers, whether they consider themselves libertarian, or just admit that they're sexists seeking cover.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how whether or when the fetus can experience pain is relevant to anything. Anti-choice people think the fetus is murder, and while I say you still get to kill Thompson's violinist, either the killing-of-another-human-being aspect is enough, or it isn't -- adding the suffering of that supposed human being into the equation is negligible compared to all the other factors.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Joe, the point isn't about the immediate pain in the killing. It's about the incredibly low level of mental development you're at if you don't even have something as basic as the capacity for pain. Is it plausible that the right to life is held by a creature whose mental capacities are below those of any mature mammal?

Anonymous said...

Oops! My bad -- I skimmed after the calling-libertarians-out-for-not-supporting-liberty bit and responded to a phrase that caught my eye without reading the context carefully enough.