Given my past activism with the Libertarian Party of Colorado, it is no surprise that lots of people still think of me as a libertarian. At the same time, libertarians think it odd that I disclaim the title. So I thought I’d make another attempt to address the issue; I delivered the following talk May 7 at Liberty Toastmasters.
For more, readers can check out my 2007 article largely on the same topic, which contains links to older writings.
After I delivered my talk, I read Shea Levy’s post, “Objectivists are Libertarians.” Because that post and my speech appear at roughly the same time, I thought I’d expand my point by briefly responding to Levy’s arguments.
Levy argues that, just as it is proper to categorize “Joseph Stalin, Christopher Hitchens, and Ayn Rand” as atheists, despite their vast differences, so it is proper to categorize “John Stossel, Radley Balko, and Ayn Rand” as libertarians.
Levy’s argument quickly falls apart when we look at Levy’s own “definition” of libertarianism: “the vast majority of activities between consenting adults should be legal and that the current US government acts far out of the bounds of the proper scope of a government.”
First, what constitutes “consent?” That very much depends on one’s philosophical commitments. Many libertarians argue that “consent” includes things like pirating music, and some hold it includes having sex with children. Throwing together advocates of a Constitutionally limited government that protects individual rights with advocates of copyright violations and child rape is rather less than helpful. Also included in this motley crew, by the way, are neo-Confederates and racist “militia” groups.
Second, defining one’s political beliefs as wanting a less-aggressive government makes absolutely no sense. That includes advocates of Constitutionally limited government as well as right-anarchists and left-anarchists. If we can trust the Wikipedia entry on libertarianism, in its origins (as a political term) it derives from anarcho-socialism.
Consider, for instance, this telling quote from Colin Ward: “For a century, anarchists have used the word ‘libertarian’ as a synonym for ‘anarchist’, both as a noun and an adjective. The celebrated anarchist journal Le Libertaire was founded in 1896. However, much more recently the word has been appropriated by various American free-market philosophers…”
As I mention in the talk embedded here, and as I have argued previously, libertarianism is fundamentally a reactionary movement, in that it is motivated by an anti-government sentiment.
“Smaller government” simply cannot be a defining characteristic of any valid concept, as it includes radically different political commitments, ranging from anarcho-socialism to anarcho-capitalism to Ronald Reagan. Whereas atheism coherently describes people who disbelieve in a god, the comparable concept for people who disbelieve in government is anarchism. Rand certainly was no anarchist, and neither am I (thought I took the theory quite seriously for several years).
To clarify the point, I am not fundamentally for “smaller government.” I am for a government that protects people’s rights (in a sense broadly compatible with Lockean property rights). I can imagine a scenario in which I’d positively advocate government consuming the vast majority of national output: say, if a reconstituted Soviet Union joined forces with a newly aggressive China and the Islamist world to wage war on the U.S. The fundamental issue is the government’s purpose, not its size.
I think the basic conceptual problem with (American) libertarianism is that it tries to mesh two fundamentally incompatible concepts: anarchism and (Lockean) individual rights. I think that nicely explains why even self-proclaimed libertarians who claim to support government so often get caught up in bizarre movements ranging from neo-Confederacy to music piracy to Islamist apologetics.
Furthermore, I suggest that the better libertarians, such as the scholars at the Cato Institute and the writers at Reason, are only better because they don’t really take libertarianism all that seriously. That is, they just fling around this term “libertarian” without pinning down its meaning, or they use the term to mean roughly “what I happen to believe.”
I suppose people can just arbitrarily define “libertarian” to mean whatever they want, in the same way I could redefine “theist” to mean “one who rejects the supernatural realm.” But I really don’t see the point of torturing the language like that or causing such needless confusion.
Let me take a recent, local example. Colorado Representative Amy Stephens has spent much of this legislative session pushing through a politically-controlled health “exchange,” to comply with ObamaCare. Stephens is either dishonest or less than fully bright, as she has characterized this government-run monstrosity as “free market.” She also dishonestly castigates opponents of the bill as anarchists. Nevertheless, because so many libertarians are in fact avowed anarchists, and because libertarianism implies or at least openly accepts anarchism, Stephens’s slurs find some traction. In short, if you lie with dogs, you’ll probably get fleas.
So, again, I am not a libertarian.
Bryan commented May 9, 2011 at 11:00 AM
Reasonable people recognize that the use of certain words is therefore simply a starting point in the process of understanding what the other person means by them and what their beliefs truly might be. As a practical matter however the level of detail needed regarding someones beliefs varies drastically depending on the context, the time available and the reason for needing to know more.
You acknowledge the possibility of “redefining” the word libertarian to mean whatever you want but don’t see the reason to do so. I”d suggest its not “redefining” as much as simply acknowledging that many words are inherently going to be ambiguous, vague and ill defined with a broad range of possible meanings. “Conservative” and “liberal” (modern, classical, or whatever variety) suffer from the same trouble as does the word “rights”. You needed to write “rights (in a sense broadly compatible with Lockean property rights)” due to its ambiguity and even that of course is only the start of narrowing down exactly what your particular view of the concept of “rights” is.
Whatever definition you come up with for rights, libertarian, liberal, conservative, or other words is usually only going to be a starting point and so simply dismissing one potential guide point as being too broad and including views you disagree with doesn’t seem useful since almost everyone using any of those words or labels has that difficulty when using them.
As a practical issue when explaining our views to someone its often necessary to start with a general high level abstract but imperfect overview which we then proceed to refine and correct to varying degrees depending on the purpose of the interaction. Even if the initial sign post we are given like “liberal” or “libertarian” differs in our understanding of the term from the views of the person it applies to it at least provides a starting point for further dialogue using that merely as an initial guiding point to steer from.
Given that few people will know whatever word you might use to describe your set of political views, say Aritarianism, its useful to rely on a shorthand as a starting point and it confuses other people needlessly not to be willing to give them guideposts as starting points even if those guideposts aren’t exactly on the mark. Your approach I think will sow more confusion and waste more time than merely accepting the closest shorthand as an approximation and then proceeding from there. e.g. many people from suburbs of Denver when talking to people elsewhere in the country will accept the inaccurate initial shorthand that they are from Denver and only correct if necessary.
Shea Levy commented May 9, 2011 at 11:02 AM
Thanks for the post. I hope to get a chance to chew this more and maybe respond, but, just to clear things up: “the vast majority of activities between consenting adults should be legal and that the current US government acts far out of the bounds of the proper scope of a government.” wasn’t meant to be a definition of libertarianism. I was just pointing out two commonalities that occurred to me as I wrote the post. In the comments of the post, I take a shot at identifying some more fundamental common characteristics, and go a bit more in detail into what I see as the cognitive utility of the word.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 11:03 AM
Bryan, If I were to call myself a “libertarian,” I’d immediately need to distance myself from anarchism etc. If I call myself a “free-market advocate,” I convey all the positive meaning I want with none of the serious baggage. -Ari
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 11:08 AM
Shea, My point was that the very meaning and motivation of “libertarianism” is tied up with an anti-government agenda, and your comments feed that view, even if not intended as a definition. I’m not anti-government. Moreover, for reasons indicated, something like “less government” simply encompasses too many fundamentally contradictory viewpoints to serve as a useful political framework. It’s just not an essential characteristic of anyone’s political views. -Ari
Bryan commented May 9, 2011 at 11:23 AM
I’d agree that the “better libertarians” do what you say regarding making using the term as roughly “what I happen to believe”. So I guess my point is to suggest that is both natural and less confusing than trying to avoid potentially being misunderstood by trying to disavow use of the term for the views of those who are closer to “libertarian” than “conservative” or (modern) “liberal”.
If you try to disassociate yourself from the “libertarian” label then I’d suggest that as you’ve found others will likely not remove from their conception of you as one despite your protests unless you professed believes too far from that general vague description (such as e.g. suffering a head injury and coming out in favor of Obamacare :-) ), i.e. accept reality and work with it.
If not “libertarian”, if you object too strongly to the description others will simply try to find a different initial word to use when referring to you such as conservative or objectivist or some other term which may have its own inaccuracies. Most language is inherently approximate and imperfect regardless of any intention for it not to be so. I’d suggest its better to simply be ready with shorthand ways to refer to what sort of “libertarian” you are in either a phrase or by hoping your own descriptive label like “Lockean” or “Aritarian” might become widely enough known as a school of thought to eventually take over from the libertarian label you wish to disown
You seem to be concerned about being tarred and feathered by negative preconceptions people may have regarding those who describe themselves using the same term, “libertarian”. I’d suggest reasonable people will begin to understand that is simply a starting point when describing a set of views (just as “conservative” is) and not
to be too caught up in worrying about that. Those who tar and feather
for superficial reasons will simply find other ways of doing so and its not too useful to let them guide our use of shorthand language.
I’d suggest that your view of “so many libertarians” being anarchists is likely skewed by those you hang around with and that among American libertarians as a whole most are “minarchists” of some fashion or other and that is the more common view of the general public when they hear the term.
I’d suggest perhaps your view of it as being “lying down with dogs” (your own negative conception of anarcho-capitalists) to accept that as an initial approximation is giving in too easily to those who rely on superficial mud slinging rather than rational argument and allowing them to dictate your use of language.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 12:44 PM
What is your view of the terms “Classical Liberal” or “Market Liberal” or “Laissez-faire Liberal”? I use these terms frequently. I never use the term libertarian unless I say “Minarchist libertarian” and then I explain what minarchist means.
Rand referred to herself as a radical for capitalism. I often wonder if we need a poli-sci term that refers to laissez-faire in the context of limited government. We really don’t have a term for that.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 12:49 PM
I think I’m most partial to “market liberal.” I’m not keen on the term “minarchist” because, first, it sounds odd and hardly anybody knows what it means, and, second, it deals in non-fundamentals. I’m not fundamentally for a government of minimal size; I’m for a government that protects individual rights, at whatever size that requires. But I agree there’s not an awesome term to describe my political views. I’m okay with “market liberal,” “individual rights advocate,” or, in more of an economic context, “capitalist.” -Ari
James commented May 9, 2011 at 1:17 PM
You say, “they are against something – the state, and not for individual rights and the system required to protect them” to which the obvious counter is, “No, we aren’t for building up a system to protect individual rights. We believe that emergent order will lead to individual rights.”
I don’t think anyone believes that the hard right will be convinced not to legislate against abortion, just that in a voluntary society people could enter into communities where abortion was not allowed. I’ve literally never heard the argument, “In a voluntary society..you could PERSUADE people to not get abortions…” that’s totally made up. Never heard it, not once. You can of course persuade people to not get abortions in a statist society as well. The argument is that the only way to stop people from having abortions is to persuade them against it, not that this will actually bring the hard right over to the libertarian POV. I’ve also never heard anyone say that children shouldn’t be protected from adult sexual predators, though I can imagine people making the argument that government shouldn’t be the one to police those rules.
The IP commentary, “government does it, so it must be bad…” is such a simplification. The point is that those protected by patents and copyrights are protecting their IP with stolen money. If society wanted to all pitch in to protect IP(and it very well might, in a voluntary society – we have a lot of examples of people respecting artists and giving them patronage for original works) it would be totally different. Right now, we have other members of society being forced to protect other people’s intellectual property, which they may very well not want to do.
And of COURSE libertarianism is reactionary!!! How could it not be? You could never be a libertarian if there were no government – it’d be like being anti-Klingon or anti-telekinesis. It’s perfectly logical to be against a bad thing. Being against something doesn’t necessarily make the movement wrong.
You say, libertarianism is not for individual rights AND the system to protect them – you are right, but he has lumped two things together unnecessarily. You imply that individual rights DEMAND a government system in place to protect them, and I would say the burden of proof is on you from that perspective. Of course, if you ever tried to assume that burden of proof you would fail, so it’s much easier to just state as fact that individual rights “require a system to protect them.”
It’s funny, too, because I don’t call myself a libertarian because I DO believe there is unnecessary baggage around the term. I just go by voluntaryist – which sums up everything nicely without the connotation. But your arguments certainly seemed aimed at an audience prone to status quo bias, and it’s altogether quite sad because he lends authority to these sweeping generalizations with the old “I used to be one of them, so you can trust me here!!!” trick.
James commented May 9, 2011 at 1:25 PM
Apologies for pronoun issues – I originally typed that email to a friend who linked me here and when I changed the format for this post I left a few “he”s that should now be “you”s. Sorry for any confusion!
Diana Hsieh commented May 9, 2011 at 2:35 PM
Thanks much for this post, Ari. A while back, Greg Perkins made some similar arguments about the fundamentality of individual rights to politics — and why wanting “less government” (including zero government) is not a proper basis for political classifications:
Also, many years ago, I explored the epistemic basis of the concept “libertarianism” in this blog post:
At the time, I was uncertain of my views (as you can tell from the blog post), and I did find this first comment from Don clarifying:
Here’s my current thoughts:
Today, many people use the term “libertarian” to mean that they’re on the right economically, but not religious right or socially conservative. In other words, the term doesn’t mean adhering to the non-initiation of force principle as an axiom, nor regarding all defenders of “liberty” (including anarchists and pedophiles) as a political allies.
In essence, the term “libertarian” has become as vague and broad as “liberal” or “conservative.” For many people, that’s a reasonably apt description of their views, in part because they’re in the process of working through difficult philosophic issues. Often, such people are sincerely interested in and friendly to Ayn Rand’s ideas. Often, they understand that liberty means respect for and protection of individual rights by government. Often, they clearly reject anarchism and pacifism, support abortion rights and intellectual property, and so on. But because the term is so broad, you have no idea what they think until you ask!
Hence, I’m not going to waste my time quibbling with someone’s use of the term “libertarian”: I’d rather argue with them on some substantive points, to help bring them closer to my own Objectivist views. However, I persist in thinking that Objectivists should not use the term “libertarian” to describe their politics. Objectivists can — and ought — to describe their politics as “Objectivist” — or, more generally “free market” or “laissez faire” or “pro-capitalist” or “classical liberal.”
Happily, more and more people know the basic meaning of advocating Objectivism in politics — as distinct from libertarianism. That’s because more of us are using that term — while interacting with the confused mess of quasi-free market people that make up the tea parties and other local groups.
That’s real progress, I think.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 3:31 PM
I think that’s basically right, Diana, but I hasten to note that even “mainstream” libertarians tend to characterize their views as wanting “less government.” Thus, the general tendency toward opposing government persists, and they really cannot in principle distinguish their views from those of anarchists, who want the least amount of government. -Ari
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 6:08 PM
@Diana, the problem with the terms you suggest (aside from, obviously, “Objectivist”) is that they all emphasize economic matters and are silent on issues of legislating morality. I wish there were a better term, because I think there are a lot of people (including me, and some “libertarians”) who largely agree with an Objectivist politics even though they are not Objectivists.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:30 PM
Age of consent laws are perfectly compatible with Libertarianism and recommended.
A more mature child can petition a judge for emancipation if he or she thinks they are ready to make their own decision prior to 18 or other agreed upon consent age.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:34 PM
Libertarianism is a simple.
Live and let live.
Every person who is not a collectivist is a Libertarian by default.
A government whose major purpose is to protect and honor the non-aggression axiom will be more than adequate.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:38 PM
Objectively explain why collectivism is preferred to liberty? Also please explain how using force to accomplish ones desires is moral?
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:57 PM
What are “objectivist” politics? Sounds rather subjective, no?
As soon as your objective politics are contrary to my objective politics, you will be faced with 2 simple choices. Ask me to cooperate voluntary or garner my cooperation via the guns of government.
Seems to me, the only objective choice would be the voluntary path. Nobody dies.
If you are willing to support the guns of government view point, the burden of proof is upon you to objectively rationalize murder or imprisonment albeit under the guise of State and citizenship, i.e. the imaginary social contract.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 8:38 PM
Wow, Jeff; You’re simply assigning beliefs to Diana and me that we do not in fact hold. If you want to make some arguments to advance your case, great; but that’s the last of the smears I’ll let through from you. -Ari
Jim May commented May 9, 2011 at 10:00 PM
I often wonder if we need a poli-sci term that refers to laissez-faire in the context of limited government. We really don’t have a term for that.
I call that “liberty”.
As far as the need for a “poli-sci” term is concerned, I think that we need an actual political science before we deal with the issue of particular terms within it. The entire realm of political “science” as it is known today exists solely for the purpose of preventing rational thought about politics.
Diana Hsieh commented May 9, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Sheesh, Jeff. The “Objectivist politics” is the politics of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. You can read Ayn Rand’s core political essays here:
Man’s Rights: http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=arc_ayn_rand_man_rights
The Nature of Government: http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=arc_ayn_rand_the_nature_of_government
“Collectivized” Rights: http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=arc_ayn_rand_collectivized_rights
Resuna commented May 10, 2011 at 11:18 AM
I’m a “civil libertarian”. Or that should be written “civil-libert”-arian, perhaps? I don’t trust authority, whether that authority is corporate, governmental, or originating in any other institutional structure. On the other hand I believe it’s necessary. I don’t believe the idealistic “non coercive” libertarian state can exist, because people will accumulate different amounts of power and people will need, at the very least, organizations to enforce “voluntary contracts”… and these organizations will end up being governments and (short of Iain Banks’ transcendently powerful benign AIs making work unnecessary) almost everyone will end up subject yo contracts that are only nominally voluntary.
Anonymous commented May 19, 2011 at 6:53 AM
Here is a video that may cause some to rethink IP.
Here is an audio that may give you second thought.
Ari commented May 19, 2011 at 10:40 AM
And here you can find Greg Perkins’s refutation of the video linked above: http://blog.dianahsieh.com/2009/12/objectivist-recants-on-ip.shtml
Also check out Adam Mossoff’s work on IP: http://www.law.gmu.edu/faculty/directory/fulltime/mossoff_adam
Craig commented May 23, 2011 at 4:03 PM
I’m not sure I agree with abandoning the term “libertarian” over it, but I do feel the pain of people prejudicing themselves against anything else I might say (regardless of content or merit) after I identify myself as such. Diana’s comment is one of the two general examples that really irk me:
“Today, many people use the term ‘libertarian’ to mean that they’re on the right economically, but not religious right or socially conservative.”
I’m a very conservative Christian and like the two libertarians currently running for president (Paul, Johnson) was raised Lutheran (and like Paul I considered going to seminary but decided on another profession). With or without these anecdotes, the quoted is an incorrect application of the term. Libertarianism is a political philosophy – theology and personal practices (aggression towards another is not personal) are outside its scope. I happen to have arrived at libertarianism via application of Christian principles…go figure. None of this changes, however, the use of the term in this way…and the resulting negative connotation.
The other example is that some now believe libertarian = tea party = republican. So, I have friends who identify with team blue whose ears close when they hear the little-l word.
So, maybe the term is thoroughly trashed…but if two of the 10 people who have commented on this post don’t know what Objectivism is (hasn’t even made it into Chrome’s spell-checker, BTW)…I doubt I’m going to get far calling myself a “classical liberal.”
OK, thread winner goes to Ari for this (it describes the issue with shallow general understanding and misapplication of these labels well):
“The entire realm of political ‘science’ as it is known today exists solely for the purpose of preventing rational thought about politics.”
russj commented September 26, 2011 at 3:31 PM
Nice post Ari!
Your reasoning is very reminiscent of Heyek’s famous “Why I am not a conservative” article, from which I assume you got the title.
I also recall the famous line from “South Pacific: “I know what you’re against! What are you for?”
You would rather stand for a set of principles, than oppose those which you despise.
Let’s continue to support human rights, and their foundation, natural law.