The Meaning of Libertarian

I’ve been giving libertarianism some thought over the past few days. My natural instinct when people attack (most) libertarians and libertarianism in general is to become quite defensive. To me, libertarianism implicitly tends to mean constraining the state to various forms of one function: protecting liberty. Implicit in that is the view that states should never resort to force or violent coercion (“the non-aggression principle”). In my cosmos this manifests itself as non-interventionism (i.e. negative liberty) — unwillingness to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations, in markets, in citizens’ private lives.

We have had years of big, visible interventionist screwups — an Iraq war that left over a million Iraqis dead, economic policies like bank bailouts and quantitative easing associated with growing inequality, etc. So I tend to lean toward the idea that irrespective of the libertarian alternatives to the status quo, libertarian criticism is at the very least a noble pursuit.

One problem with libertarianism (and with all schools of thought based around “liberty”) is that no two people will necessarily agree on what liberty is. Libertarians’ cousins, the liberals tend to constellate their ideas around the goal “protecting liberty”, too. But their version of “liberty” is highly interventionist (i.e. positive liberty): they want to use the machinations of the state regulate banks, to regulate the climate, to regulate markets, to dole out money to the less-fortunate, and sometimes even to intervene in the affairs of foreign lands.

And the really complicated thing is that in the real world most people tend to want some of both; protection by the state, as well as freedom from the state. And different people want different aspects of each — some “libertarians” may want freedom from financial regulations, but may believe strongly in drug testing welfare applicants. Other “libertarians” may want gay marriage rights, but also want Glass-Steagall-style financial regulations. Some “libertarians” may want an end up to corporate campaign financing, and others may say that is an essential aspect of free speech. Some “libertarians” may believe strongly in corporate personhood, while others may say that limited liability is effectively market-rigging.

And even when libertarians agree on what they want to achieve, they often cannot agree on how to get there. Some libertarians want to abolish everything tomorrow, others want a more gradual change. Some want to end the foreign wars and nation building first, others first want to kick people off welfare.

Here’s a Twitter conversation I had yesterday:

For readers unfamiliar with so-called “libertarian” Tyler Cowen’s positions, here’s a primer:

Cowen has been described as a “libertarian bargainer” — someone of moderate libertarian ideals who can influence practical policy making. In a 2007 article entitled “The Paradox of Libertarianism,” Cowen argued that libertarians “should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.” Cowen endorsed bailouts in a March 2, 2009 column in the New York Times. He was a supporter of the Iraq War.

Cowen could be fairly described as a raging neocon wrapped up in the language and mannerisms of libertarianism.

I think what most people are missing is that ideology is very often a mask for interests. Wealthy business interests are happy to wear the clothes of libertarianism and appeal to libertarian principles (including even the principles of non-violence and voluntarism) when they want to ask for tax cuts. But they are less willing to do so when it comes to slashing subsidies, or outlawing corporate or government snooping, or preventing wars from which they might profit. They might be happy to preach the doctrine of free markets when their companies are successful, but happy to embrace bailouts when their companies fail.

And that is the problem with ideology. Too easily it can become a tool. Or worse, it becomes a weapon to enforce a party line. And that’s why I cannot in good conscience call myself a libertarian, or a classical liberal, or member of any kind of ideological mass movement. The terms are all quickly hijacked and rendered meaningless. And this isn’t solely a political point: think of musical movements like “punk” and “grunge” and “hip hop”.

So I reject ideology, and instead embrace principles. The key difference is that while ideologies are generalised blanket positions that encompass an entire range of issues, principles apply locally. I accept some “libertarian” views, and I reject others. It seems completely pointless to muddy the conversation by defining myself as a libertarian (or a liberal, or a conservative), thus associating myself with a whole blanket of ideas, some of which I agree with and others that I don’t. It is better to just talk specifically about policies and positions that I agree with, or disagree with.

I disagree passionately with handouts to big finance, with aggressive or imperialist foreign policies, with prohibitionism, with corporate personhood and with large-scale central economic planning. On the other hand, I think that a small social welfare net funded by taxation is a good idea. Does that make me a libertarian? A liberal? I don’t care.

The main problem with this anti-ideological view is that ideological labels are — for most people — a useful shorthand. Nothing will stop the cascade of labels that are thrown around. It’s quick, dirty and easy. But we should be aware that they smudge reality into digestible compartments, at the expense of detail. We should be aware that they are intellectual shortcuts.

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