Some long, rambling thoughts on what it means to be a libertarian. At least, if you’re me.
Preliminaries on Dissent: I’ve been thoroughly bemused at many of the responses to Erik’s post below. Larry M writes:
Even confining ourselves to legitimate libertarians … There’s CATO, which does some good work, but the stuff from them that gets publicized tend to be (a) not the positive stuff that Kain highlights, and (b) fitting confortably into the NYT stereotype.
First, it’s Cato, not CATO. But I do love the Gallicism. And there’s this from Mike Schilling:
The very antithesis of wanting to be taken seriously is (as Cato did) giving a senior position to Tucker Carlson.
Schilling very reasonably objected to Carlson saying that Michael Vick should have gotten the death penalty. Carlson’s opinion is not, incidentally, libertarian by any stretch of the imagination. I know that if it were my job to talk on TV every day, I’d probably say some foolish things too… but still, this one was a real doozy.
But look, people, if stuff like this keeps you from working harder to end the war on drugs, to fix our eminent domain system, to restrain our surveillance state, or to preserve our civil liberties… isn’t that rather pathetic? Aren’t these about the weakest excuses around? That you don’t agree with everything at a full-service policy shop? Or that TV folk sometimes say dumb things?
I’m sorry that some ideas from Cato get more leverage in the media than others. But I don’t see how this counts as a strike against any of our good ideas in particular. And if Cato’s still not your thing, I hope you’ll consider giving to some single-issue activist groups like Flex Your Rights, the Institute for Justice, NORML, the Innocence Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Castle Coalition, the National Rifle Association, or any of the others you can probably find. (These were only my favorites among the national, single-issue groups.) If your critique of Cato is really all that sophisticated — they’ve got the wrong emphasis! — then you’re plenty capable of finding worthwhile groups to support.
More importantly, you don’t have to agree with everything from Cato or everything in Reason magazine to be a libertarian. I myself disagree with quite a few things my colleagues have published. Not only am I still counted a libertarian, but Cato still cuts me a paycheck. I think the Politburo could find it in their hearts to forgive you, if we even had a Politburo.
You might recall that I’m a complete, total squish when it comes to global warming. Unlike most people, I feel a very low degree of confidence in my conclusions on this issue, so I rarely write about it. But a squish I am, and a squish I remain. As I once wrote, the largeness of a commons problem is no argument against solving it. Other things might be, but not this.
Here are some more. My forthcoming policy analysis on marriage will disagree, respectfully, with Cato’s president and founder. I think there actually might be a proper role for the government in recognizing marriages, and I argue for what I think it should be. (The paper is due out on January 12; I’ll discuss it further then.) Or just put me in a room with Roger Pilon, and I’m pretty confident we can find a few things to disagree about, too. Look here and there in the Cato@Liberty archives, and you’ll likely find others.
Ultimately, though, these disagreements don’t mean we can’t share a think tank or even a political philosophy, including above all a set of guiding values as we approach the many hard questions of politics. I think it would be a lot more frightening, not less, if we all agreed on every conclusion in all the particulars. It would also make us much less credible, and it would put many of us in a morally compromising position if perfect, lockstep agreement were expected. That’s why it isn’t.
Mere Libertarianism So what does unite us, if anything? Is there a “mere” libertarianism, akin to C. S. Lewis’s mere Christianity? I think there is. I could be wrong, of course, but I’ll try to explain how I think a mere libertarianism ought to be understood. It may still seem that many folks calling themselves libertarians in the real world don’t match up to my mere libertarianism, but that’s okay. When we mint a label, we give up all pretense of controlling it.
With that said, here goes. I think libertarianism rests on two basic premises:
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.
I generally term libertarian those arguments invoking either premise.
By these terms, many people hold a wide array of libertarian views. You don’t have to be a Cato sponsor to think that this is atrocious. Almost everyone is a little bit libertarian, and that’s not a bug; it’s a feature. We could hardly have a proper society at all if things weren’t so.
Determining who really counts as a libertarian is tricky, and the payoff is low. People hold many different views, and no one bases all of their thinking on my two premises anyway. (Is Glenn Greenwald a libertarian? I don’t know, and he doesn’t label himself, but I’m very, very thankful for the work he does.)
Still, libertarian arguments have already prevailed in many important areas of life. Our institutions in these areas have already been reformed to reflect the idea that individuals should decide for themselves, and that coercion should be banished. Consider:
America [has] a rather long-running experiment with very generous religious freedom, so that it constitutes a valid case study for the point I wish to make: When people are left alone to use this very, very potent thing as they see fit, they don’t degenerate to a “state of nature”, and (for the most part) they don’t form mobs to kill off the other religions (though we have formed mobs for other purposes). This powerful cultural practice, something with great potential for evil, is simply left lying around for anybody to use however they like, and somehow our society works. Moreover, our society remains fairly pluralistic in regards to religion, and has evolved toward ever greater (if not perfect) tolerance for minority faiths. While Muslims in America hardly have it easy, (1) they still have it easier than Sunnis in Iran or Shias in Afghanistan and (2) they probably have it easier than unpopular Christian groups at various points in US history.
I see this as an example for libertarians to point to: Individuals can handle potent ideas and activities if left to their own devices. They will form communities, adhere to traditions, and band together to work through the psychic turmoils that it can produce. If the results are not always perfect, they are at least no worse than the results in places with less religious freedom, and are often far, far better than the results in places with less religious freedom.
If religion had never been invented, and if someone came up with it today, I can guarantee you the government would step in — wrongly. How much more, then, this conclusion should apply to other, less harmful things. Often, we do okay without the control.
The Art of Letting Go Libertarians view, or should view, the story of politics as one of fitfully learning to let go of power. Letting go is most certainly an art to be learned. It doesn’t come to us intuitively. Instead, it appears intuitive to think that planning, regimentation, and following a consciously designed order are the only rational ways to run a society. As a result, letting go can appear to be a default on our responsibilities. Yet letting go often has very good results, as with religion.
One might ask — Where and how often can we expect good results? And just how good will they be? The honest answer is twofold.
First, we don’t entirely know yet. There are sound empirical reasons to think that many forms of letting go should be tried right away. There are moral arguments that take us further. But we won’t know until we try, and this means one thing — caution is still in order. As I said, libertarians often premise their thinking on the idea that individuals aren’t terribly competent to run the lives of others, and it only stands to reason that even as we let go, we won’t always get everything right.
Second, a lot depends on what we try to let go of, in what order, and how. If all that you “privatize” is the choice of whether public officials perform their duties, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that you’ve let go in a way that enhances arbitrary power, rather than doing away with it. The ensuing scandal was not a failure of letting go, but a failure of arbitrary power — the very thing that we are trying to let go of.
Libertarians not only believe that we have a surplus of arbitrary power; we also believe that the surplus is very, very often misused. And why? Well, look at who gets that power. It’s generally those who are already wealthy or influential. And those who most enjoy wielding power over others.
Such people tend to be the best connected, the best informed, and most inclined to grab even more as they go. The military-industrial complex should be taken seriously by libertarians. It’s a manifestation of just this problem. With very few exceptions, politicians should not be our most-admired people.
The people most likely to have more power channeled in their direction are not, therefore, the most deserving. People who would give political power to the disadvantaged often seem to ignore an important middle term — how do you get power to them, without it being diverted? One of the areas where libertarians and their fellow travelers have made the most progress in the art of letting go has been in the analysis of regulatory capture. It strikes us as odd how little others consider this problem.
Libertarians, when faced with the task of empowering the powerless, should be sympathetic, not contemptuous. (Alas, sometimes we are contemptuous.) But we should insist, by the very reason of our sympathy, that difficulties abound. If we want to help the poor, we should, for another example, consider welfare traps unconscionable — not merely an unfortunate side effect, but a dash of poison in the soup. Eliminating them should be the first thing any genuine liberal would do to improve our welfare state. Only feudalism wants permanent clients.
This brings me to one way in which libertarianism is different from most other political theories. Libertarians often find others engaged in what seems to us a game of divvying up. Who gets which power? How can I be sure that my group gets while the getting is good? Whose dog are you?
This is the very business we propose to escape. We find that the problem of power is not solved by allocating. It’s solved by containing and, ultimately, by renouncing. Our job is to figure out how to do it properly, so that to the greatest extent possible, no group has its hands on the levers of coercion. Presbyterians don’t run the state religious council. Muslims don’t run it either. That’s because there is no state religious council.
Order and Markets What reasons do we have to expect that letting go is an improvement? One is the human tendency toward spontaneous order. Often, the result of letting go is not chaos, but a set of shared, flexible, robust norms and institutions that emerge from repeated interactions among a group of people — in short, a civil society. Many of our institutions, including law, language, money, and markets, have been the products of human action, but not of human design. These point the way forward, to some extent.
One need not look very far to see norms and institutions emerging in a space of very minimal coercion. Wikipedia is anarchic — and yet remarkably effective. We all joke about it — and yet we all use it. Continually. Its control structures were engineered on the fly, they remain incredibly loose, and the degree of central planning has been virtually nil. That’s a spontaneous order.
I have said very little yet about markets. I avoided them because, as a commenter noted, when one writes of markets it is usually assumed that one is writing merely of the status quo. I’m not here to champion the status quo. A market of a particular kind, however, is certainly an institution worth having.
Yet whenever one invents a term for the let-go market, whenever one labels the thing that is honest exchange without coercion, favoritism, or damage to bystanders, the label is understood to mean the status quo, or worse, it’s considered an endorsement of giving more power to corporations — as if libertarians were still in the divvying-up business, rather than trying to escape it.
Jim Peron lately writes of “depoliticized markets,” and it’s a good try. One of its virtues seems to be that we can’t plausibly use it to describe the status quo. “Free markets,” “laissez faire,” “capitalism,” and many others have fallen before it, but hope springs eternal, I suppose.
His description of what markets do, culturally, is a good one, and I endorse it by way of closing this already too-long post. In it I’ve tried to synthesize a huge amount of thinking, using many new terms. It’s probable that I’ve royally screwed up here or there, so I welcome suggestions for improvement. One doesn’t write like this without courting disaster. The least I can do is be a little aware of it, which I am.
 Libertarian arguments are usually understood to come in two flavors, utilitarian and deontological. These, it’s often claimed, are incompatible with one another. I think they in fact are compatible, at least for a wide variety of subjects. Their results are often either the same or very similar, and this need not imply that either approach is invalid. But if there is any point at which my mere libertarianism is eccentric, it’s here.
 Defining coercion is of course very tricky. I incline toward the definition that holds coercion to be that which defeats the will, while not convincing the intellect. I am not intellectually convinced that my wallet belongs in the mugger’s hands, although my will may find itself complying anyway. Whatever makes it comply is coercion. N.b., this definition encompasses both the use or threat of force and also most things usually called fraud.