Wednesday, December 13, 2006


About a week ago I mentioned Lind's article about the death of libertarianism. Since then, I have come across many articles that claim just the opposite. That libertarianism is not dead, but is finding a new home... on the left.

I'll explain in a second. I should also point out that Lind's article may have misdiagnosed the problem. It is not that libertarianism is dead, but that the conservatism of Republicans, as it used to be, is dead.

Why are the tales of libertarianism's death exaggerated? One reason to think this is because libertarians have shifted gears. Instead of aiming their arguments at economic liberty, they have begun to target social conservatism, and begun taking social libertarianism more seriously. If this is so, many writers, like Lind, may be confusing libertarians for liberals. When someone writes in defence of ending the war on drugs, they may be libertarians, but Lind may falsely believe that it is a liberal writing. So he's not counting enough libertarians.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that can be described as both left and right, as both liberal and conservative, in different respects. It is left and liberal on social issues (drugs, sex, and rock and roll); it is right and conservative on economic issues (anti-tax, and pro-free market ). It is for small government and liberty through-and-through. Conservatives are in favour of small government with respect to economics ("mind your own business"--where "business" means economic enterprise), but in favour of big government when it comes to social issues and the military. Social democrats (as they are called in Europe) and liberals (as they are, alas, alas, called in Anglo-America--but not in Australia! In Australia, "liberals" are still pro-liberty on both social and economic issues. Would that the rest of us were as wise about words as Australians... but I digress...) are in favour of small government with respect to social issues ("mind your own business"--where "business" means affairs), but in favour of big government when it comes to economic issues.

Libertarians are in favour of people minding their own business in both of the above senses of "business." Mind your own affairs, and mind your own economic enterprises. Just in case this is interpreted as thorough-going interpersonal isolationism, the libertarian claim is that what shouldn't mind my or your business is the government. You and I can take an interest in one another's businesses. We can try to persuade others that they should do one thing, rather than another. The claim is importantly restricted to the activities of governments, and not of churches, persons, charities, other institutions and so on. Libertarians can be busybodies. They can run around telling other people how they should run their lives, and how they should run their businesses. Libertarians just take very seriously the prohibition on doing so by making use of the government.

Sometimes they believe this because they believe that people shouldn't be coerced or forced to do things against their will. Some libertarians believe in what they call the "axiom of non-aggression," or something like a total prohibition on initiating force (Murray Rothbard comes to mind). I do not agree with these libertarians. In principle, I see nothing particularly wrong with forcing people to do what is right. By "in principle" I mean something like this. Suppose we had an oracle that could tell us everything, and knew everything. If we had such an oracle, there would be nothing wrong with coercing people to do what the oracle says. The problem is that we don't have this oracle. So we may be opposed to paternalism, coercion, and the use of force for practical reasons. We may believe that, for instance, giving someone the power to coerce us when we all agree that it is the right thing to do will not keep them from coercing us when we think it is the wrong thing to do. We may believe that, in practice, while some institution manages to get it right a lot of the times, they can get it wrong, sometimes horribly, terribly wrong. We may believe that the benefit of allowing coercion in cases where they will get it right is outweighed by the cost of those times when they get it wrong. This is what I believe. But this is another digression.

Conservatives found appeal in libertarianism when libertarianism expressed its economic arguments. Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, and so on, were all popular figures in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Most everybody knew their names, and was familiar with a handful of their arguments. Libertarians, at the time, probably sharpened their pens and got busy writing about economics because the biggest threat was to economic liberty. Communism comes to mind, as does socialism. These were real threats to liberty, real reasons to focus on economics. Communism is no longer a "real" threat, "real" in the sense of being politically feasible. Socialism is also no longer a "real" threat. (This is my perception, I'm guessing many others share this perception). Since this is so, many may have turned, or are now beginning to turn, to social liberty issues. Drugs, gays, and a culture of liberty.

This makes it natural for libertarians to begin abandoning conservatism, especially since modern-day conservatism in the Republican Party means supporting somewhat different big government programs from the Democratic Party's big government programs. This abandonment appears to be happening. The most significant of these articles is Brink Lidsay's article entitled "Liberaltarians" in the New Republic. I could not get past the first paragraph (firewall), but then found the article on Cato's website, where Lindsay works. In this article, Lindsay is pleading with libertarians to dump the elephants in favour of the donkeys. He is also arguing that liberals and libertarians in America have more in common, when you consider everything, than libertarians and conservatives do. Good for him. I agree. Read the article.

Today, meanwhile, the Economist chimes in with an article that argues the Republicans should target their guns at the Libertarian Party. This is a short article, but it expresses what I take to be a fact. In many cases, many libertarians are shifting their vote to Democrats, and the Libertarian Party, as a way of venting their anger with Republicans. Good for them. I support this move. Read the article.

Is libertarianism dead? Hardly. It's just shifting gears.


Blogger William E. Demers said...

Libertarianism is still going strong on the right. Socialist libertarianism doesn't even work if you look at the numbers.

3:10 p.m.  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

Do you mean "social" libertarianism? Socialist libertarianism is an oxymoron, I would have thought.

3:23 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find just the opposite. Modern, progressive liberals have dropped the ball with respect to classic liberalism, and conservatives have picked it up and are beginning to run with it.

Libertarians would appear to be natural enemies of social conservatives, yet somehow they get along pretty well. One reason, perhaps, is that libertarians believe devoutly in freedom of conscience, which means they may be better equiped to tolerate a diversity of opinion. Progressive liberals, on the other hand, seem to be getting less and less tolerant. The speech codes found in universities are a prime example.

3:27 p.m.  
Anonymous Werner Patels said...

When read something like this ("Smoking ban in condos next step"), it's not hard to believe that libertarianism is dead, or will be dead soon.

9:46 p.m.  
Anonymous ericdondero said...

More libertarians were elected in the 2006 elections running under the GOP banner than practically any time before. The Republican Liberty Caucus backed over 120 candidates and 80% of them won. It was a glorious year for the RLC.

Not too mention many libertarian-leaning Republican Governors were elected, like Butch Otter in Idaho, Sarah Palin in Alaska, Mark Sanford in SC, and even Charlie Crist in Florida.

How anyone could interpret that as a sign that libertarians are abandoning the GOP for the Democrats is beyond me.

If anything the exact opposite is true. More and more Libertarian Party refugees are joining the RLC these days. In fact the LP's top elected official switched to the GOP back in August.

For a list of elected Libertarian Republicans go to

Eric Dondero
Houston, Texas

9:49 p.m.  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

eric - Thanks for the link. It's interesting. But I guess I should have been clearer. When I say libertarians are abandoning the GOP, I don't mean that politicians who are libertarian are abandoning the GOP, but that libertarian, and libertarian-leaning *voters* are.

I'm glad to see it was a banner year for the RLC. I'm a fan of that group, and I'm glad their doing well.

Part of my post may be wishful thinking. I really do wish libertarians would punish the GOP, at least at the national level, for having so thoroughly abandoned liberty.

1:33 a.m.  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

rabbit - I agree that University speech codes are bullshit. These kinds of liberals make my stomach turn.

My post was a 'balance of reasons' post, not a claim that liberals are pro-liberty, but that, maybe, just maybe, they are pro-liberty more so than conservatives.

Or, put differently, on the issues where casting a ballot for a liberal or conservative candidate has some chance of making a difference at the policy level, it may be better to vote liberal. I don't care if a politician believes that we should not be allowed to wake up any later than 10 in the morning, and promises to put forward a bill to that effect. A bill like that would be futile. I do care about their views on marijuana, however, for the simple reason that I believe it is not futile (or at least not *as* futile).

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