The “libertarian moment” may have finally arrived. An essay about American libertarianism in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine argues that younger voters’ social liberalism, fiscal conservatism and dissatisfaction with the political establishment is becoming a wave that new libertarian politicians are on the verge of riding into political relevance.
Whether or not this is true, the essay makes for an accurate glimpse into the libertarian movement’s self-narrative: libertarians comparing themselves to rock stars, libertarians for legal weed and hip with the kids, libertarians as champions of liberty, libertarians unconstrained by petty partisanship.
But the essay doesn’t get to the heart of libertarianism, which is something more than rejecting Republican hawkishness and Democratic entitlement spending or being simultaneously opposed to bailouts and carbon taxes. The essence of libertarianism is not political, but inescapably philosophical. Below are the reasons I rejected that philosophy.
Personal freedom is libertarianism’s only value
Libertarians are obsessed with liberty, and they are generally eager to admit this about themselves. While most Westerners agree that personal freedom is desirable, libertarians make a bolder claim, and it is in some ways their only claim: individual liberty is the ultimate political good.
It’s an innocuous-sounding and deceptively elegant statement that can distract a casual listener from considering the necessarily corollaries. When libertarians tell you they “just” believe in individual freedom, they mean it. Any other political good—fairness, compassion, equality, democracy, tradition, goodwill, public health, brotherhood, order, peace, progress, solidarity, authority—is not a good in itself, but is measured in terms of its consistency with the overriding good of freedom. If liberty requires less democracy, libertarians are in favor. Order and peace are good, but not if they have to be won at the cost of someone’s freedom to do as they please. Even authority, to libertarians, has no real legitimacy except to the extent that it serves liberty.
But while liberty is indeed a good thing, it’s really not the only good thing. We live in a complicated world, and solutions to its problems are rarely sufficiently simple to withstand being summed up in a slogan.
Libertarian mantras to the contrary, heroin and consensual incest should probably remain illegal. A zero percent income tax rate is probably a naïve suggestion in a globalized, advanced society. There’s probably no free-market solution to climate change. There are hundreds more examples. The point is not that libertarians are wrong about these issues–it’s that they ignore, at everyone’s peril, every conceptual dimension of these issues except that of liberty versus tyranny.
Libertarians ultimately fall back on a very vulnerable claim
The liberty-only worldview of libertarians is nearly impossible to justify from any philosophical standpoint. Various libertarian theorists have tried to “prove” it—Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe—but end up making spurious or absurd arguments. Rand makes fantastic leaps of logic from Aristotelian logical axioms to libertarian property rights that only seem plausible when wrapped in a narrative (Atlas Shrugged). Hoppe actually tries to say that because people speak to each other with civility, they are somehow proving that the non-aggression principle, a moral claim, is an objective truth.
Most libertarians who are awake to the moral indefensibility of this claim say that their arguments don’t really rely on it–that they have arrived at their elegant maxim by observation of the world. Pure freedom, they say, happens to lead to every other political good.
But this is an extraordinary claim to which I have never seen even an ordinary justification, let alone the extraordinary one that would be required (even geniuses like Milton Friedman ultimately have fallen short and often resorted to moralizing). I speak from experience in saying that libertarians who believe a truly free system will automatically give rise to all the other political goods listed above are almost certainly deceiving themselves, and are glossing over the many inconvenient subtleties with a sheen of moral certitude.
Libertarian fundamentalism, including free market fundamentalism, really doesn’t always work as a policy. The uncomfortable truth is that the libertarian method of political analysis is to identify the policy consistent with individual liberty, then to tell whatever narrative must be told to support that view. Ultimately, libertarians are slaves to an intoxicating but naïve intuition that negative liberty is the ultimate good.
They inevitably become amoral about anything consensual
Libertarians are accustomed to explaining to others that their private moral opposition to certain behaviors is separate from and irrelevant to their political attitude to those behaviors. They may morally oppose cocaine use, bestiality and the unrestricted sale of organs (for example) but they don’t coerce others into abiding by those subjective moral codes.
However, as I discovered personally, a laissez-faire public attitude on human behavior is often accompanied by moral apathy in private. This is probably because the libertarian ethic is itself a moral judgment; one that supersedes for its adherents any other.
This discovery is borne out by research connected with psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, which identifies six axes of human moral taste: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Everyone cares at least a little bit about each of the six moral goods, but the relative importance of each foundation varies quite cleanly by ideology. On tests of moral attitudes, both liberals and conservatives have been shown to have relatively broad palates of moral taste. Libertarian morality, on the other hand, is dominated by the liberty/oppression foundation.
In other words, libertarians do not have the same moral sense as the rest of us. While they oppose murder, rape and theft on the basis of liberty, many of them see acts like burning flags, eating one’s deceased dog or public nudity as morally neutral.
It’s worth mentioning for the sake of context that self-identified libertarians are overwhelmingly male and white and disproportionately agnostic or atheist. They tend to be younger and extraordinarily socially detached, and are likely to intellectually inhabit the internet instead of the real world.
Libertarians reduce complicated realities to simplistic models
If you’ve had conversations with libertarians about politics, you may have at times suspected they were speaking a different language. This is probably because they were. In order to deal with the world in such a way that libertarian theory makes sense, libertarians have reinvented the meanings of many ordinary words.
For example, to the dismay of most experts, libertarians insist on defining government as no more than a “monopoly on violence”. Sociologists think that marriage is an institution the identity of which is difficult to pin down, but to libertarians, it is clearly just a contract of union between two people. A law, to libertarians, is a “threat of force” without any greater significance.
Definitions like these are appealing because it’s very easy to reason toward libertarian conclusions on their basis. Since law is just a threat of violence, the government can easily be characterized as abusive and arbitrary. If marriage is just a contract, then it’s obvious the government should just “get out of the marriage business”. If the state is just a monopoly on violence, then isn’t it our enemy?
Libertarians thus conveniently sidestep the weightier questions of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, religion and law by defining them away.
It’s no error to simplify reality to a model for the sake of reasoning more easily about it—humans must do this to survive—but libertarians have insisted on a self-contained, internally consistent model within which they can give an easy answer to every question. So their reality is considerably simpler than anybody else’s. This leads to another problem:
Libertarians feel entitled to strong opinions on issues they know little about
Many non-libertarians are content to leave an issue aside or take a tentative stance when the relevant field of study is outside their intellectual comfort zone. Take monetary policy—most Republicans and Democrats defer to economic experts because handling the money supply is a genuinely daunting policy question, one about which even Nobel Prize winners disagree. Libertarian amateurs, however, dive headlong into these very deep policy waters. Ron Paul (a physician) wants to “end the Fed”, others want to return to a gold standard, and some want to privatize money altogether.
Whether they are ultimately right or wrong on monetary policy is beyond my ability to discern, but also beyond theirs: in justifying their radical opinions, these libertarians bypass a very large field of economic research and innovate convenient theoretical simplifications (like ignoring the differences among various parts of the money supply). As a result, when they make predictions, they’re often horribly wrong.
Libertarians overstep on more than monetary policy, of course. When a libertarian confidently promotes a brash, heterodox policy stance (say, legalizing prostitution, dismantling most government departments or getting out of the UN), you can be fairly confident that they’re mistaken. If they happen to end up being right, they were probably correct for the wrong reasons.
Admittedly, libertarians have made some important contributions to the broader political discussion. This is especially true when it comes to certain realms of economic theory, which can better bear than social theory libertarianism’s characteristic hyper-rationalism. For example, libertarians have arguably been empirically vindicated in their theory that minimum wage laws are ineffective and even harmful anti-poverty tools. Furthermore, liberty is an indispensable political good, as libertarians do well to remind us.
But libertarianism is not the answer to our broader societal question because it is not a real-world ideology. It’s ideally designed for collegiate theorizing or internet debating precisely because it is impersonal and abstract. My distaste for libertarianism is admittedly personal, because I was for a time deeply immersed in its glittering, imaginary world. As a result, I have sketched a portrait of the movement that is unfair to the more moderate thinkers among them. (However, most moderate libertarians don’t fit the profile of the prototype: either they are religious libertarians, or older than most, or just mislabeled socially moderate or dovish conservatives.) But if I’m treating libertarians harshly, I am ultimately doing so intentionally. There are many libertarians (maybe half of them) who really are as fanatical as I’m claiming, and of those who are not, many of them are at risk of becoming fanatics.
My escape from libertarianism was into conservatism, but my complaints against it are similar to those lodged by liberals and centrists. Reasonable thinkers across the political spectrum should be able to find a rare place of agreement on the issue. To quote modern liberalism’s patron saint (as I rarely do): “No, we aren’t going to have a libertarian moment,” Paul Krugman wrote in response to the NYT piece this week, “and that’s a good thing.”
Photo credit: “Ron Paul for President” by r0b0r0b, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.