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I recently listened to Tom and Sal’s podcast on libertarianism, but didn’t quite get in on the follow-up debate. So I thought I’d offer my critique in a separate post, as a non-libertarian who’s been trying to define libertarianism for years, with a little help from my Ricochet friends.
Here’s my current view on this. Libertarianism is best understood as a school of thought. It’s not the sort of thing for which it would be appropriate to draw up clear-cut identity conditions (as Tom and Sal were endeavoring to do). It has its own tradition, complete with revered thinkers such as Rand, Hayek, and Friedman. It has its own lingo and established relationships to particular disciplines (notably economics). But the difference between a libertarian and, say, a small-government conservative may have more to do with background and influence than with actual content.
In the podcast, Sal compared libertarianism with Christianity, making the point that there can be a broad range of perspectives that still meaningfully fit under one big tent. I see what he’s driving at, but the analogy is problematic, not only because Christianity involves explicit admission rituals (e.g. baptism), but also because Christianity is defined by some rather striking claims that non-Christians are very unlikely to affirm. To claim with any plausibility the title “Christian,” you must believe that a man lived in Palestine two millennia ago — and was God. You must believe that he literally died and came back to life again. And you must believe that there is a holy book that records these events, which was divinely inspired. These are weighty claims. You won’t find many people who declare, “Oh, I believe all of that of course, but I would never consider myself a Christian.” We can quibble about the dirty details, but that’s insider baseball. For most normal purposes, the sheep and goats aren’t so very hard to separate here (particularly in a world where Christianity is becoming more counter-cultural, which is steadily minimizing the incentives to pretend to believe.)
I can’t see that libertarianism has any equivalent claims that would enable us to neatly separate members from non-members. Libertarians want the government to be smaller, and they value individual rights and autonomy. But plenty of people share those views without regarding themselves as libertarians. I don’t believe it’s possible to tailor a definition that is specific enough to exclude all non-libertarians, while including everyone who plausibly claims the title.
This really shouldn’t bother us too much, because we’re constantly using loosely-defined terms in meaningful discourse. “Conservative,” for instance. Or “patriot.” Or “educated citizen.” We deal with somewhat-imprecise terms all the time. Why is it a problem here?
I think it seems like a problem to many people because for many, the appeal of libertarianism lies in its appearance of being highly consistent and principled, without relying on a complex metaphysics to press its claims. Libertarianism is very similar in that respect (for non-accidental reasons) to the branch of ethics known as “utilitarianism.” Like libertarianism, utilitarianism can hang its flag on some beguilingly simple and reasonable-seeming claims. (“Individuals should be permitted to do whatever they like, so long as no one else is harmed.” “The right thing to do is whatever brings the most happiness to the greatest number of people.”) Like utilitarianism, the devil ends up being in the details, and the more we try to work out those details, the more we find ourselves hamstrung between 1) a distinctive philosophy with meaningful content, which most people nevertheless find implausible and unattractive, and 2) a philosophy which is reasonable and probably true, but so flexible as to add virtually nothing to pre-existing theories.
My point isn’t that we need to abandon libertarianism. I have benefitted greatly from my interactions with thoughtful libertarians. I would suggest, though, that we should probably abandon the goal of defining “libertarianism” in some very precise way. At the same time, we may need to give up on the idea that libertarianism can live up to its appeal, on the surface, as a philosophy that ostensibly justifies the demand for small government without needing to rely on metaphysically complex claims about human good.
If libertarianism is more of an intellectual tradition, or school of thought, then identifying with it doesn’t clearly commit you to very much, although it will be suggestive of many things. Because metaphysical minimalism is a noteworthy characteristic of this school of thought, it is probably highly misleading to say (as Tom and Sal both did on the podcast) that their lack of religious faith “has nothing to do with” their libertarianism. There may not be a direct and obvious connection, but there are good reasons why libertarianism and atheism tend to overlap substantially. Libertarians like Mollie Hemingway or Midget Faded Rattlesnake would then be unusual libertarians in noteworthy respects, which in fact I think they are. But that doesn’t mean they’re fakers! They do have some meaningful relationship to the libertarian intellectual tradition. They just bring an unusual set of external commitments to the table, which make them atypical but also interestingly distinctive.
Similar claims, I think, could be made of many other characteristics that Tom and Sal rejected as “not libertarian.” They may not be membership conditions for self-identifying as libertarian, but they’re related, for reasons we could explain.
I have never self-identified as a libertarian. I doubt I ever will, even though I realize that there are self-declared libertarians whose views are quite similar to mine on most of the bellweather questions. Here are my own reasons for not being libertarian:
1) Metaphysical minimalism is, if not per se a membership condition, at least a highly characteristic feature of libertarianism. It seeks to justify small government in a way that avoids weighty claims about human nature, or the nature of the universe broadly speaking. As a Catholic Aristotelian, I dislike metaphysical minimalism. I’m willing ally myself to some of its adherents, but I’m not going to wear their colors.
2) Libertarianism is associated with a set of thinkers; for intellectual types, claiming the label tends to signify that these thinkers were highly influential on your in your formative years. (I suspect that has a lot to do with Mollie’s identification, though I haven’t discussed it with her.) I respect Hayek, Friedman, et al., but they were not my formative influences.
3) I see libertarianism as historically contingent. It arose in response to the overgrowth of the modern state. That’s fine and reasonable up to a point, but my own tradition (Catholic Aristotelianism) has far more historical breadth. So I don’t see much point in claiming the additional label; to me it feels like jumping out of a lake and into a stream.
All of these reasons are, to varying extents, personal and idiosyncratic. Libertarianism is an interesting flavor of conservatism, which I’ve come to appreciate more these past few years, but it won’t ever be a good description of me. Figuring out who it does describe might be more fruitful than trying to generate explicit membership requirements.