Mere Libertarianism

 

Libertarianism is the subject of regular debate on Ricochet, both between conservatives and libertarians and — if you really want to see heated debate — among different kinds of libertarians. Taking inspiration from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, member Sal Padula and I recorded a conversation in which we attempt to distill libertarianism down to its essence and explore some basic questions about it, including:

What is libertarianism? What isn’t libertarianism? What is its relationship to conservatism (both in America and abroad)? How do contemporary politicians fare under a libertarian analysis? The results may surprise you (and are largely free of references to Rand Paul!).


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Resources: Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula
    @SalvatorePadula

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: I don’t think that was Sal’s point and I wouldn’t agree with him if was. However, I took him to mean that conservatives contend that — in terms of political philosophy — things were basically figured out by 1789 and that the project since then has been to complete and preserve the Founders’ vision. With the exception of slavery and race relations, this has largely been a matter of applying some polish.

    Tom has made the point I was attempting to much more cogently than I was able to. I really do see the difference between conservatism and libertarianism as one of philosophy and not necessarily one of particular policies (though there are certainly many policies where conservatives and libertarians tend to disagree).

    • #61
  2. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula
    @SalvatorePadula

    Ed G.: Perhaps. I could agree with that to the extent that anarchocapitalism is not libertarian. Once that gets thrown into the mix, though, we have unrelated things.

    Continuing along the half-sibling analogy, if conservatism and libertarianism have the same mother and different fathers, it is pretty accurate to describe anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism as having the same father and different mothers.

    • #62
  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Blake Anderton: I agree – the take-away I got was that supposedly conservatives are just traditionalists, but anytime they espouse a classical liberal viewpoint they’re channeling libertarianism. That doesn’t seem right – maybe they’re just a different sort of classical liberal than a libertarian?

    I concede we weren’t wholly consistent on that matter (as Sal said, it’s easy to fall into the trap of claiming people who you esteem as one of your own).

    To expand on my last comment — and on something I said in the podcast — I see libertarians and American conservatives as half-siblings: they’ve got the same mother (classical liberalism) but different fathers.

    Part of the reason there was inconsistency is that you guys – Sal in particular – were not always restricting conservatism to American conservatism. That is part of Sal’s point, I believe.

    There are conservatives in other countries conserving something different from what American conservatives are trying to conserve. We as Americans often call these people “not conservative” because we use American conservative standards, but they, too, are busy conserving cherished national traditions. Similarly, I have only recently become aware of the incredible weirdness that comprises the neoreactionary movement and the alt-right. These fringe groups, while not representative of American conservatism, are nonetheless conservative. Like monarchists are conservative.

    American conservatism is about more than mere traditionalism, but it’s not entirely clear that “just conservatism” is.

    • #63
  4. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: These fringe groups, while not representative of American conservatism, are nonetheless conservative. Like monarchists are conservative.

    Like Hapsburgs!

    • #64
  5. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Salvatore Padula:

    Ed G.: Perhaps. I could agree with that to the extent that anarchocapitalism is not libertarian. Once that gets thrown into the mix, though, we have unrelated things.

    Continuing along the half-sibling analogy, if conservatism and libertarianism have the same mother and different fathers, it is pretty accurate to describe anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism as having the same father and different mothers.

    Either way, black sheep might be most appropriate.

    • #65
  6. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula
    @SalvatorePadula

    Ed G.:

    Salvatore Padula:

    Ed G.: Perhaps. I could agree with that to the extent that anarchocapitalism is not libertarian. Once that gets thrown into the mix, though, we have unrelated things.

    Continuing along the half-sibling analogy, if conservatism and libertarianism have the same mother and different fathers, it is pretty accurate to describe anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism as having the same father and different mothers.

    Either way, black sheep might be most appropriate.

    I think if Tom and I are going to do a taxonomy podcast we might have to get Jennifer to draw up some diagrams for us to illustrate what a mess all of these philosophical divorces and re-marriages create.

    • #66
  7. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Ed G.:I’ve always wondered how I would answer the question: what is a conservative? As with anything else there are multiple senses of the word along with multiple varieties, and I’m not sure I could adequately identify a common thread through it all. More and more lately I’ve come to think of my conservatism as de facto: I know I’m not of the left and I know I’m not a libertarian.

    Etymologically, a follower of the school of Burke. It’s a French term, ironically. Since then, various groups have called themselves conservative, and language being the flexible system of metaphor that it is, their beliefs have accreted to the definition. Thus, for instance, Hayek, who is in many ways almost perfectly Burkean (I don’t know of a single key domestic policy or philosophical belief of Burke’s that Hayek disagreed with) was able to write “why I am not a conservative” about why he is a follower of Burke rather than of the progressive political party led by Churchill and his ilk.

    American conservatism never had a Churchill, so conservatism here has stayed truer to its Burkean roots. It helps that the Republican Party is not called “Conservative”, which shields the definition from contamination by the left of the party.

    • #67
  8. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:I don’t think that was Sal’s point and I wouldn’t agree with him if was. However, I took him to mean that conservatives contend that — in terms of political philosophy — things were basically figured out by 1789 and that the project since then has been to complete and preserve the Founders’ vision. With the exception of slavery and race relations, this has largely been a matter of applying some polish.

    Well I am with Calvin Coolidge on this one, “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great chapter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.” President Calvin Coolidge”

    However Sal went farther than this by saying that a Conservative justifies everything by appeal to tradition.  You pushed him on that and said that it was insulting to imply that conservatives have no ideology but are just following tradition.  Sal then said well Conservatives needed to justify themselves to Sal without appealing to tradition and then he would stop insulting them.  As if he has never heard a Conservative use anything but tradition to justify his beliefs.  You, Tom Meyer seemed to accept that and move on.

    It seems as a conservative then I am incapable of understanding the concept that Free Speech or the right to self defense is a good in and of itself but I only defend them because the US has traditionally had free speech and the right to self defense.  That is simply untrue.  Conservatives can see the value of the Tenth amendment understand that it has been long American tradition to ignore it and advocate for it to no longer be ignored.

    The conversation you had was fascinating and I would like to hear more of them but it seems that your or perhaps just Sal’s understanding of Conservatism is pretty flawed.  Have said that I do believe that Liberatarianism is a half brother of conservatism as we are both rooted in the Classical liberal tradition.

    • #68
  9. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Brian Wolf: However Sal went farther than this by saying that a Conservative justifies everything by appeal to tradition.  You pushed him on that and said that it was insulting to imply that conservatives have no ideology but are just following tradition.  Sal then said well Conservatives needed to justify themselves to Sal without appealing to tradition and then he would stop insulting them.  As if he has never heard a Conservative use anything but tradition to justify his beliefs.  You, Tom Meyer seemed to accept that and move on.

    It seems as a conservative then I am incapable of understanding the concept that Free Speech or the right to self defense is a good in and of itself but I only defend them because the US has traditionally had free speech and the right to self defense.  That is simply untrue.  Conservatives can see the value of the Tenth amendment understand that it has been long American tradition to ignore it and advocate for it to no longer be ignored.

    Exactly. Burke was able to support the impeachment of Hastings and call for reform in Ireland because the tradition he drew upon was a tradition of support for reforms, not a tradition of things being as they always had been. He supported capitalism and reforms in America, too.

    Libertarians prefer principles with less of a vintage than the Constitution and Church Tradition; the non-aggression principle, or the harm principle. That’s fine; that those positions are more arbitrary than the principles of conservatives isn’t a particularly big deal.

    The key difference there is the non-empirical approach of doctrinaire libertarianism. Many see themselves as radicals, and see themselves correctly. It’s in this rejection of Hayek and other soft libertarians that libertarians mark themselves out as non-conservatives, and as poor candidates for leadership of successful countries; if you live in Somalia, drawing up a new social contract might not be such a terrible idea, but if you live in America, the experience of the many, many radical factions that have striven for utopia tells us that the result would almost certainly be terrible.

    • #69
  10. Jennifer Johnson Inactive
    Jennifer Johnson
    @JenniferJohnson

    Am listening now. Have two windows open to this page, one for the podcast and one for comments. What I enjoy most so far is just hearing the sounds of your voices! It’s nice to be able to put a voice to what I know of you both here in written form.

    • #70
  11. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Misthiocracy: “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.” – Matt Kibbe

    No one disagrees with that. No one.

    The question is how do you define “hurt.”

    The socialist says that getting rich off someone else’s labor hurts them.

    The Islamist says that turning someone away from Allah hurts them.

    The racist says that reproducing with someone of another race hurts the resulting children.

    These examples are, to us, obviously ridiculous, but that’s the point. What separates libertarianism from other philosophies is not the NAP but how narrowly they define harm. That so many libertarians think otherwise is argument in bad faith.

    • #71
  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Umbra Fractus: What separates libertarianism from other philosophies is not the NAP but how narrowly they define harm. That so many libertarians think otherwise is argument in bad faith.

    I agree that libertarians striving for a narrow definition of harm are somewhat misguided. Instead, I think due consideration of what Coase might call the balance of harm typically (even inevitably) leads to libertarian policies. To cross-pollinate from another thread:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Augustine: And some libertarians insist that all harmful behaviors are (at least in principle) eligible for government restriction. But some of the same libertarians think that some or all of these behaviors are not (even in principle) eligible for government restriction.

    OK, to me, this is easily solved:

    Read Coase. Find out that not every harm (social cost) can be ameliorated without imposing greater harm (also a social cost). Observe in particular that the government is unusually well-placed to cause more problems than it solves when attempting to ameliorate a harm. Therefore conclude that there are real harms out there that it’s not the government’s business to ameliorate. Logic problem resolved.

    • #72
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