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 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 think utilitarianism is rather juvenile too, but it’s captured the loyalties of some very intelligent people in academic philosophy.) It could be, however, that I only think that because of the circumstantial fact that most of the libertarians I’ve known were themselves juveniles, and not particularly sophisticated mouthpieces for the philosophy. I’m willing to revisit the question.
I can’t really commit right now to tackling an extended reading list, which I would presumably need to do in order to get a nuanced perspective on the many flavors of libertarianism. But it would help a lot if I could get an answer to the above question. What must a person commit to in order to qualify as a libertarian? And, for those of you who identify yourselves with libertarianism, what’s the attraction?
Before you answer, it might help if I stated what I believe to be the attraction for the undergraduates. Libertarianism is what I like to call a “low buy-in” view. The “buy-in” I have in mind is something like, “commitment to a definite view of human nature, and to normative claims about how human beings should live”. Aristotelian, virtue-oriented moral theories are thus “high buy-in”. You have to commit to a lot to get on board with these theories. Utilitarianism, by contrast, has a very low buy-in. In its crudest form, it doesn’t ask you to commit to much of anything except that pleasure is good and pain bad.
Undergraduates love the low buy-in. I think it’s mainly because, being simpletons themselves, they hate to think that other people might know better than them, and even more to think that they should submit to the wisdom others in deciding how to live. Accordingly, they flock to low buy-in views, and the ones that most value opportunity become libertarians, while the security-lovers become socialists.
What’s the attraction for the more-mature conservative, though? To be sure, there are plenty of reasons for a non-moral relativist to favor limited government. In the first place, government tends to be inefficient at most jobs. Also, a person living in a pluralist society might pragmatically recognize that a small, relatively neutral government is the most optimal of the realizable options. Finally, there is the deep truth that some level of freedom is necessary for human beings to achieve full moral maturity, and exercise the virtues. Conservatives at different times have articulated all of these as reasons for favoring limited government, but it seems to me that they are not, per se, libertarian reasons (which is not necessarily to say that they are incompatible with libertarianism). The first two are too pragmatic; the libertarian sees small government as a requirement of justice. The third doesn’t clearly justify as limited a government as most libertarians seem to think we should have.
I’ll stop here, and hope other people offer their thoughts. But just to remind you, the two questions are, first, what most fundamentally defines a libertarian? And second, what’s the attraction of this view for mature conservatives?