The Combine Conservative-Liberal Assault on Libertarianism
I’ve increasingly found myself defending libertarianism not just from those who think it’s a misguided approach, but from those who insist that libertarianism has become just a form of reactionary conservatism, due to the (very limited, I would say) success of the Tea Party movement and the influence of the Koch brothers. Now I know almost nothing about the Koch brothers, and frankly am not interested in knowing much about them. They may be a) libertarians in good standing* who have a handful of anti-government views that liberals find so horrific that they thereby define the Kochs and libertarianism as a whole as reactionary, b) guys who mostly hold libertarian values but on a couple of issues hold reactionary conservative views that liberals find so horrific they use those couple of issues as the complete definition of the Kochs and libertarianism, or c) guys who are very reactionary but for some reason style themselves as libertarian. I don’t really know, and I don’t care enough to study them to find out. What does interest me is the determined insistence of some liberals in using those people to define libertarianism. I think that’s intellectually dishonest. And while those liberals make a show of commiserating with us non-reactionary libertarians over the tarnishing of the name,** they won’t actually help us out by defending the distinction between libertarianism and reactionary conservatism, but eagerly engage in reifing the alleged (not proven, just repeatedly alleged) distinction between the two.
These liberals make a show of being supportive of us “good” libertarians while actually undermining our efforts to defend the name from its use by right-wingers. They claim to “share our pain” (having been a conservative before that came to mean being a fan of Glenn Beck, or having been a communist trying to distance oneself from Stalinism). This “commiseration” drips with condescension. “I learned my lesson, why don’t you learn yours,” is the message. Let the bad people take the name instead of fighting to redeem it. Let them retroactively defile every thinker and every piece of writing from the past half century that is self-identified as libertarian, is what they are counseling.
Sure, we may yet lose the war, but they’re counseling us to surrender in the first battle. And even as they claim to recognize that there is a libertarianism that is not consonant with right-wingerism, they refuse to help us defend that libertarianism, and actively work against us by publicly accepting the right-wingers’ claims to the label. With friends like these, etc., etc. I can’t help but think there’s an element of self-servingness in their actions–if they manage to persuade us to abandon the word “libertarian” to the right wingers, they can congratulate themselves that they were right all along about libertarianism actually being just a form of conservatism.
There are conservatives who have always focused on libertarianism’s opposition to social welfare programs and support for competitive markets*** as proving that libertarianism is conservative. I think there is a sort of silent agreement between liberals and conservatives to play up that idea, which allows each side to not actually take libertarianism seriously. That’s an intellectual cop-out, of course. It doesn’t surprise me that people arguing politics engage in intellectual cop-outs, but that doesn’t mean I won’t pause to point it out when they do. Both sides conveniently ignore libertarianism’s liberal aspects–support for free speech, freedom of religion, an end to the drug war, an end to America’s military adventurism, etc. Liberals pretend it has nothing really to do with “real” libertarianism, or go so far as to claim that libertarians actually hold views opposite to that of liberals on those issue,**** while conservatives encourage libertarians to give up those silly wayward thoughts and return to the conservative plantation.
It is true that to a large extent the libertarian label has been tarnished from its use by people who are more accurately defined as conservative. But there are two conclusions that often seem to be implicit that do not in fact actually follow from that. One is that the ideas of libertarianism have somehow changed. The libertarians I know, and with whom I associate and communicate, have not changed their ideas one iota as a consequence of this cooptation of the libertarian label. The ideas that have been promulgated under the label of libertarianism over the past half century remain the same ideas with the same meaning and the same policy implications. The other conclusion that does not follow is that liberals are simply responding to a fait accompli. In fact they are energetically–even if not always purposefully–helping to create the distortion of the label. When my friends say they are only pointing out how the right-wingers who call themselves libertarians have become so prominent and how it’s important to publicize how terrible such people are, I am now asking why they aren’t at the same time pointing out that those people are proposing ideas that aren’t actually very libertarian at all. But there is a notable reluctance of my liberal friends to accept any responsibility for the role they play in this. They seem eager to insist that they are only reacting to, not helping to create, the conflation of libertarianism and conservatism. Of course that is in notable contradiction to their general attitude toward the media when it is repeating certain political catchphrases–they don’t let the media get away with claiming to only be reacting to terms already made popular; no, they insist that the media is helping to create the misperceptions. Double standards are common, but no less ugly for their distressing frequency.
Hanley’s Take on Libertarianism
I’ve been criticized for not “trying to reform” libertarianism. That was a surprising criticism, given that I’ve consistently defended a particular approach to libertarianism that distinctly does not entail acceptance of reactionary conservatism; given that I’ve consistently criticized reactionary conservatives; and given that I’ve repeatedly emphasized that those people, despite using the same identifying label that I use, are not my people. I’m not sure just what is expected of me. I’m not wealthy like the Koch brothers, so I can’t found my own “true” libertarian thinktank. And as it turns out, whatever the Koch brothers may be, the vast majority of the stuff churned out by the thinktank they fund–the Cato Institute–is “standard” libertarianism, not right-winger stuff. If some of it is right-winger stuff, well, I’m sure that many conservatives hate that left-winger civil liberties stuff put out by Radley Balko at the Reason Foundation, which is also funded by the Koch brothers. If only a small portion of Cato’s publications can be fairly defined as reactionary***** then all we can really conclude is that libertarianism is not so bounded that it doesn’t include some reactionary elements at its margin, just as it includes some very leftish elements at its other margin. That concept seems exceptionally hard for some people to grasp. I don’t know why. Take a staunch neo-conservative like Dick Cheney, for example, who also supports same-sex marriage. That view at the margin of his general set of beliefs does not thereby define him as a liberal. Yet there are those who are insistent that the views at the margin of libertarianism–but only at one of its margins, and not the other–define the ideology. Double-standards abound.
I emphasize that I accept–although I dislike it–that among those who can fairly call themselves libertarians there include those who hold some beliefs that can be fairly classified as reactionary, even though reactionariism in general is anti-libertarian. Let’s be honest and recognize that few people are perfectly consistent in all their beliefs. So I’m very hesitant to make a claim about “what libertarianism is,” for fear of treading into the No True Scotsman fallacy. But let me make a general statement about how I see libertarianism, in its core and in its breadth–a general statement that holds true to the beliefs roughly shared by me and most of those who would be classified as “intellectuals” in the libertarian realm, regardless of what corruptions may be committed by those who claim the label.
I begin with Jason Kuznicki’s attempt to define “mere libertarianism,” (i.e., libertarianism’s common core):
1. Individuals are generally far more competent at running their own lives than they are at running the lives of others. This insight is not sufficiently reflected in our existing political institutions.
2. When coercion is used, it should be considered either a failure or a last resort. Likewise, this insight is not sufficiently reflected in our existing political institutions.
Notice that this core makes no references to Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, or any other controversial thinker who may plausibly be defined as libertarian. You don’t have to agree with Rothbard’s views on money or Ayn Rand’s praise of self-interestedness to be a libertarian. Premise 1 just recognizes human limitations, and premise 2 just notes that voluntary arrangements are preferable to coercive ones if they can be achieved.******
For myself, I emphasize a concept that is in perfect harmony with both of these premises: an abiding skepticism about regulation. Notice I say “skepticism,” rather than “absolute rejection of.” I try, for my own part, to be pragmatic. If humans are generally lousy at running other people’s lives, much of our regulatory system–which is geared directly to that purpose–is ill-conceived. And since all regulation is coercive, all regulation reflects a failure to solve problems short of coercion. This means a libertarian should continually be asking the following questions:
- Is there in fact a problem here that requires a solution? (Moral disapproval of certain actions does not equate to a problem that needs to be solved; people suffering the consequences of their own mistakes at least arguably does not equate to a problem that needs to be solved; people engaging in theft from others is a problem that needs to be solved; the destruction of a common pool resource is a problem that needs to be solved; etc.)
- If there is in fact a problem that requires a solution, does it require a coercive (regulatory) solution? (Some problems do, some do not. Too many people are too quick to assume that each problem requires a regulatory solution.*******)
- If the problem does in fact require a coercive (regulatory) solution, does this particular regulation actually a) function as advertised, and b) involve no more coercion than necessary? (Too many regulations are poorly designed, because it’s just not that easy to design regulations that don’t create perverse incentives, and too many regulations are more restrictive and coercive than is actually justified by the need to solve the problem.)
Within that framework, there is plenty of room for disagreement about each particular alleged problem and policy. Libertarians can disagree all over the place, but if they hold something approaching that framework, I think they’re fairly called libertarian. Roughly, I would say we could place libertarians on the following continuum.
All Regs are Illegitimate———————————————————–Many Regs, while Imperfect, are Legitimate
Notice that this says nothing about being more liberal or more conservative. I think that simple left-right dichotomy isn’t the relevant issue with libertarianism. The real issue is how far one goes in accepting the validity of regulations. If one eagerly promotes regulatory structures, whether from a more liberal or a more conservative perspective, then one cannot with much legitimacy claim to be libertarian. So those right-wingers who oppose same-sex marriage, insist on English-only laws, support the imprisonment of drug users, are ardent advocates of military interventions abroad, want to limit caps on civil suit awards to protect businesses, etc., are not plausibly called libertarians. If a person is mostly skeptical of regulation, but supports one or two of those issues, they are plausibly libertarians of a non-pure sort, much like myself (although I would disagree with them on just which regulations are legitimate). I’m probably somewhere in the middle of that range, slightly toward the “Imperfect, but Legitimate” side.
The question that ought to be raised at this point is, “what about when the absence of regulation allows one person to harm another?” I.e., when a company imposes costs on others against their will by polluting, a.k.a., externalities. That’s actually quite simple, and I emphasized the simplicity by phrasing the issue correctly–one party harming another; one party imposing on another against their will. For libertarian thought, coercion and imposition are prima facie justifications for regulation. There are a group of anti-libertarian liberals out there whom I will uncharitably call morons, who seem to think that libertarianism requires allowing people to harm each other willy nilly without any limitations. Libertarians oppose coercion, whether private or governmental. They don’t only oppose it when done by government, and they often see it as the only thing that makes government potentially legitimate (and then legitimate only if it essentially confines itself to preventing and punishing coercion, a view that is slightly more “pure” than my own). A government that allows the oil change shop next door to dump used motor oil in my yard is no more legitimate than a government that allows my neighbor to break into my house and rob me. And poisoning the air or water we breathe is not fundamentally different than dumping used motor oil on my lawn.
Libertarians do differ in what they think the best response to such issues is. Some argue that the best solution is not bureaucratic regulation, but the common law approach of trespass. Some argue that to the extent possible we should eliminate the problem of destroying common pool resources by privatizing them. And some argue that in such cases, as with rape, murder, robbery, etc., bureaucratic regulation may be an inevitable necessity. All of those views can fit within the general framework of regulatory skepticism. But someone who argues that “polluters should be allowed to pollute unhindered because regulation is bad” is not in fact making an argument that is very consonant with libertarianism because they are arguing in favor of allowing private coercion..
In fact it’s a bit idiotic to allow that to define libertarianism, because it directly violates the very core of libertarianism–Kuznicki’s premise #2, that coercion should be seen as a failure. (I know, someone is thinking Kuznicki only indicts government coercion. All I can say is, go ask him.) No serious libertarian that I know of argues that private coercion is good and ought to be tolerated, and that the victims of it should have no recompense. Anyone who holds that belief and calls him/herself a libertarian is either a misguided fool or a bald-faced liar. Any liberal who claims that’s what libertarians believe is also either a fool or a liar.
What more can I say to those who insist on defining libertarianism by the very type of coercion that libertarianism has always opposed? As long as these non-libertarians–both liberals and conservatives–insist that libertarianism means what they say it means, rather than what those who most closely reflect what it has always meant say it means, it’s hard to have a meaningful discussion. My liberal friends seem to insist those are the only legitimate grounds on which to have the discussion. That is, they insist that the only legitimate grounds are the ones which just so happen to be conducive to their preferred outcome, which is avoiding having to take libertarian ideas seriously.
I refuse to play their game. I refuse to let them arbitrarily set the rules for debate. And if they want to fall back on their standard criticism that “my” type of libertarianism isn’t the one that has real political influence, all I can say is that influence has no bearing on the validity of ideas, so they’re pitching a real strawman argument. We both agree that the right-wingers are the problem, and yet instead of seeking common ground with libertarians who also oppose the right wing, they insist upon alienating us by saying that we must either reject the libertarian name or be labeled right-wingers ourselves. To hell with that. That’s a dishonest framing of the alternatives, a false dichotomy. The intellectual dishonesty of the liberal critique of libertarianism seems to be all-pervasive, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it.
*Not that there’s any libertarian authority who gets to make such determinations.
**See, generally, here @64, and @71.
***I used to use the phrase “free markets,” but I find that provokes too much of a knee-jerk reaction, ranging from those who just mindlessly repeat “there’s no such thing as free markets,” to those who believe it is a euphemism for “pro corporate monopolies that are free to commit fraud on consumers.” “Competitive markets” tends to undercut those responses, at least to some degree. Were there a similar substitute word for libertarianism, I might just give up the fight and adopt it, but as of yet I don’t know of any such term.
See the link from ** @58. Of course my liberal friends now understand libertarianism well enough, from my constant badgering, that they can be pressured to say, “Oh, of course I recognize that libertarians side with liberals on certain issues,” but then they seem to inevitably return to the “but libertarianism is now defined by conservatives” claim. It’s astounding to me that people whose intelligence I respect can commit such flagrant intellectual fouls. That’s the power of ideology and over-identification with politics, I guess.
****I’m not sure how much, if any, is. Mostly I’ve just heard criticism of anti-AGW stuff coming out of Cato. That’s arguably reactionary, in the sense of being anti-science, but it’s not necessarily an indicator of a general favorability to conservative beliefs. If the AGW people are pro-same sex marriage, in favor of legalization of marijuana, pro-choice, pro-competitive markets, etc.–and I don’t know if they are or are not–then their anti-scientism, however scurrilous and despicable we may think it is, is not actually evidence of a general reactionariism. It’s popular, and easy, to assume an anti-AGW view necessarily indicates a whole set of conservative beliefs, or that it’s motivated only by a desire to protect corporations’ ability to keep polluting, but neither of those is necessarily true. And my interlocutors have not yet demonstrated that either of those is true. It’s easier for them to just make the assumptions and the accusations and leave it at that. But without evidence, I remain agnostic, neither defending nor condemning those who have earned their wrath. I am, of course, open to persuasion, with some actual evidence.
******I demonstrated this latter just this past week in both my American Government and my environmental politics classes, when I had the students play collective action problem simulations, one about multiple countries trying to work together to support a road system for trade and defend against pirate attacks, the other about trying to collectively manage a common pool resource without destroying it. If they can manage to create institutions for collective management through voluntary agreement, they don’t need to resort to coercion. If they can’t, coercion becomes necessary and legitimate, but it nevertheless represents a failure.
*******For example, when I lived in Eugene, Oregon, each fall the rains would begin just after the leaves had fallen, and inevitably would end up clogging storm drains. When the storm drain just down the street from my house clogged, my neighbor complained that “the city should do something about that.” My initial instinct was the same, but fortunately a friend of mind had recently noted that the simple solution was to grab a rake and go clean it up. So I put on my boots, grabbed my rake, and solved the problem in less time than it would have taken to find the proper municipal office in the phone book and make a call.