What Does It Take To Be A Card-Carrying Libertarian?

I’ve noticed that a lot of Ricochetti seem to self-identify as libertarians. This is interesting to me because I haven’t personally known a lot of real, grown-up libertarians. Undergraduate students, in my experience, are often quite attracted to libertarianism; in fact, they generally divide pretty neatly between the libertarians and the socialists. As they age, however, many move on to something a little more substantial.

That, at any rate, is how I tend to think about it. Libertarianism…

  1. Joseph Stanko

    I think undergrads are attracted to libertarianism and the socialism because they tend to be more idealistic and radical at that age.  Both suggest programs of radical changes to remake our society, laws, and institutions to conform to a simple, logically coherent philosophy.

    As people get older, settle down into homes, careers, and families, they tend to lose that radical passion and adopt more pragmatic, incrementalist views.  They also tend to become somewhat more cynical and world-weary and roll their eyes at the more ambitious schemes of younger generations.

  2. Joseph Stanko

    To directly answer the question posed by your title: go here, fill out the form, pay $25, and they’ll send you a membership card in the mail.  :-)

  3. David Carroll

    I will take a shot.  I don’t buy your “low buy-in” analysis.  In my view, individual freedom is the highest and best goal for any society.  When we promote individual freedom, we show respect for all human beings in the belief and hope that each will act rationally with compassion for others.  Rational behavior with free markets will benefit all, not equally, but with equal opportunity.  An understanding of economics, particularly the Austrian school, helps explain what you call mature libertarianism.

    Government by its very nature limits freedom.  Unrestrained, a democracy results in a tyranny by the majority.  Government is about one group of people telling everybody else what they must do or must not do.  

    As in driving, we need rules of the road to govern our relations, but those rules enforced by the government should be minimal.

    As I see it, that is libertarianism in a nutshell.

  4. Fred Cole

    Those are two really good questions.

    Different people think libertarianism means different things, just the way different people think conservatism and liberalism mean different things.

    I reject your notion, as you define it, that libertarianism has a low buy-in. Frankly I’m a libertarian because of my moral beliefs, and libertarianism is the only “system” logically consistent with those moral beliefs.

    What could be the appeal?  Logical and moral consistency, which is lacking in both conservatism and liberalism.  

  5. Rachel Lu
    C

    Could you say a bit more, Fred, about what sorts of moral beliefs incline one towards libertarianism?

  6. jetstream
    David Carroll: I will take a shot.  I don’t buy your “low buy-in” analysis.  In my view, individual freedom is the highest and best goal for any society.  When we promote individual freedom, we show respect for all human beings in the belief and hope that each will act rationally with compassion for others.  Rational behavior with free markets will benefit all, not equally, but with equal opportunity.  An understanding of economics, particularly the Austrian school, helps explain what you call mature libertarianism.

    Government by its very nature limits freedom.  Unrestrained, a democracy results in a tyranny by the majority.  Government is about one group of people telling everybody else what they must do or must not do.  

    As in driving, we need rules of the road to govern our relations, but those rules enforced by the government should be minimal.

    As I see it, that is libertarianism in a nutshell. · 6 minutes ago

    Good summary!   I consider myself to be a libertarian who also believes that our super-power military is one the most important guarantors of our liberties and freedoms.

  7. Casey Taylor

    Rachel, I think you may be starting from a false premise. Libertarianism is a broad political philosophy, not an ethical worldview whole within itself. Mendel touched on this a little bit in his general comparison and contrast of liberalism and conservatism. The moral argument informs the political philosophy, not the other way around. Most libertarians, no matter where they stand on various issues, came to be libertarians because they understand that there can be no such thing as a societal good that also harms individuals; individuals comprise society. So how to accommodate 324 million individuals? We can do it with an ever-expanding bureaucracy that invents rights for favored constituencies, or we can recognize that there are essential, natural rights, that should not be abrogated, and reject those who would. The government that governs best, to paraphrase the man, governs least. That’s the focus of libertarianism.

  8. Austin Murrey

    Peter did an interview with Milton Friedman for Uncommon Knowledge, I will defer to that interview.

  9. Rachel Lu
    C

    I think maybe I wasn’t too clear about the “low buy-in” concept. Sorry! It’s my own lingo, developed to help my ethics students sort through the different moral philosophies that we study in their introductory ethics course. But they are subjected to 100-plus hours of lecturing on the topic, and I’m not going to do that to you. 

    Maybe this will help. Thomas Hobbes bills his own view as having the lowest possible buy-in. He says, in effect, that his political theory will be the best one for human beings no matter what they might happen to want. So, with respect to the question, “What makes human beings thrive?”, you need not commit yourself to anything in order to justify being a Hobbsean. Says Hobbes.

    I am not suggesting that libertarians have no significant moral commitments. That is clearly untrue. But it seems to be fairly neutral about human nature, and about what (beyond freedom, which practically everybody claims to value in some form) enables human beings to thrive. And I think it involves some commitment to the idea that government should be fairly neutral on these questions.

  10. Fred Cole

    Well there’ one specific moral principle I had in mind: The non-agression principle (NAP). Thatis the principle that it is morally wrong to initiate the use of force (including coercion and fraud) against another.

  11. Fred Cole

    Libertarianism is about the role proper role (if any) of government. One can be a Christian or an athiest or a Randite or Amish. It is simplyabout the role of government and consistant application of principles.

  12. BrentB67

    I have some Libertarian values on certain subjects, but don’t consider myself a card carrying member. Like you I have been informed by others at Ricochet, specifically Fred Cole and Mollie.

    The role of government to me is a critical component and the Libertarians here are very consistent on this issue.

    The area of Libertarian thinking I find most interesting is the discussions and debates about the effects of exercising one’s personal liberty may have on the liberty of others. Once the discussion moves away from the role of government the discussion gets more dynamic and more interesting.

  13. Rachel Lu
    C
    Fred Cole: Libertarianism is about the role proper role (if any) of government. One can be a Christian or an athiest or a Randite or Amish. It is simplyabout the role of government and consistant application of principles. · 7 minutes ago

    It’s easy to achieve an obvious consistency when your list of commitments is short and simple. If you are interested in a wider variety of complex goods, you may have to work harder to harmonize them. As far as religion goes, all you’re really saying is that you as an atheist libertarian are willing to welcome people of all faiths to your camp. Whether they can enter without violating their other commitments might be another question.

    By the way: why believe the NAP? It seems intuitively false to me.

  14. Mendel

    To expand on Brent’s point above, most libertarians and conservatives seem to be in general agreement about the role of government (except perhaps with regards to military spending and a few other items). 

    Where the big differences come up is the role of non-governmental institutions in setting standards for the organization of society. In fact, in that sense, both liberals and conservatives seem to agree with each other more than with libertarians: both former groups feel that humans cannot peacefully co-exist without a dominant moral and/or cultural authority.  For liberals, this is the state, while for conservatives, it tends to be either the church, or a codified notion of Judeo-Christian tradition.

    I think the big open question is this: can humans remain moral beings without a universally recognized moral authority?  As a squishy libetarian, my answer is yes – but only given the proper incentives.

  15. Mendel

    I think it is easy to protray libertarianism as immature because it proposes incredibly simple solutions to incredibly difficult problems.  The sentiment “do whatever you want until it hurts your fellow citizen” sounds as naively far-fetched as Google’s “don’t be evil.”

    The best counter-example to this argument is Milton Friedman.  Ever pragmatical, he realized (in my very humble reading of him) that libertarianism is a method with which to slowly mold the world as it exists, not an attempt to reconstruct it to resemble one’s inner idealist fantasy.

    I think honest libertarians must admit that their ideal world will never come close to fruition, and indeed probably couldn’t last long even if it did.  But that doesn’t mean moving incrementally in that direction will not benefit society and individuals greatly.

  16. Fred Cole

    The NAP seems intuitively false? How so?

  17. Misthiocracy
    Mendel: I think it is easy to protray libertarianism as immature because it proposes incredibly simple solutions to incredibly difficult problems.  The sentiment “do whatever you want until it hurts your fellow citizen” sounds as naively far-fetched as Google’s “don’t be evil.”

    One’s attitude towards libertarianism depends entirely on the basic premise one uses to define it.

    “Do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody,” is a really weak line of persuasion.

    “No human has the right to use coercion or force against any other human except to prevent the use of coercion or force,” is a much more persuasive way of describing the core philosophy, IMHO.

  18. Rachel Lu
    C
    Fred Cole: The NAP seems intuitively false? How so? · 15 minutes ago

    Well, I coerce my children to do things (or stop doing them) all the time. That’s basically my job. If I were walking by a cliff and someone was preparing to throw himself off, I would intervene if it were in my power to do so. I don’t know how broadly you define “coerce”, but I’m quite happy to put social pressure on people to be polite (which includes positive, not exclusively negative, obligations), to get jobs or otherwise make contributions to society, and a myriad of other good things.

    Since it’s not really good for us to be left totally to our own devices, I don’t see why there should exist any prima facie obligation against coercion.

  19. Mendel
    Misthiocracy

    “Do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody,” is a really weak line of persuasion.

    “No human has the right to use coercion or force against any other human except to prevent the use of coercion or force,” is a much more persuasive way of describing the core philosophy, IMHO. · 2 minutes ago

    I agree – I was merely trying to depict/caricature the “immature” reasoning that some, like Rachel Lu, might hear from college libertarians.

  20. Sundog

    Libertarianism has always seemed a bit juvenile to me, which is not of course to deny that very smart people can sometimes get stuck in it.

    I stopped reading at this point. I’m 52, so having my views dismissed as “juvenile” taxes my patience. And telling people that they are “stuck” in their opinions is just the Marxist “false consciousness” canard with a new coat of paint. These are not serious arguments.

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