The big tent of libertarianism

ImageIn the United States, the term “libertarian” has been co-opted by a narrowly defined ultra-capitalist conservative philosophy embraced by the US Libertarian Party, and by some factions within the Republican Party. But the word has always had a much broader meaning, encompassing many distinct legal and philosophical views. Some libertarians  claim to have devised complete philosophical foundations for ethics and government, but others adopt a situational approach to problems of applied ethics and law.

Yesterday, over at the Friendly Atheist site, blogger Terry Firma “came out” as a libertarian. What’s great about Terry’s post is that he highlights progressive aspects of his views. He believes in a progressive income tax and single payer health care — ideas that are not typically associated with Libertarian Party USA. I love Terry’s post because I consider myself to be the same kind of libertarian, and I’ve met plenty of like-minded progressive libertarians over the years, but we’re often lumped in with the Ayn-Rand-Tea-Partier-gun-lover-climate-change-denier cult that has been so loud in recent years.

I previously wrote some very critical remarks about the Ayn Rand variant of Libertarianism, which has become a dominant influence in the US Libertarian and Conservative political movements. There is no shortage of problems with Randian thinking. But “Libertarianism” refers to a diverse collection of philosophical approaches to ethics, politics and law, and the entire batch should not be dismissed because of a few bad eggs.

Most people mistakenly identify libertarianism with minarchism — the philosophy that government regulation should be “minimized” or eliminated altogether. According to Wikipedia, “Libertarianism is a set of related political philosophies that uphold liberty as the highest political end.” That’s a pretty sweeping definition. This definition doesn’t dictate anything about economics, or about the size of government, or about industry regulation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a slightly more precise definition:

Libertarianism, in the strict sense, is the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things. In a looser sense, libertarianism is any view that approximates the strict view.

I am a libertarian to the extent that I agree with this statement. This is still a really broad definition, and to me it is more a statement of philosophical orientation, not a dogmatic foundation for political theory. Although this starting point is broad, we can already predict some likely conclusions from this proposition. If we believe individuals “own themselves,” then we are likely to favor one or more of the following:

  • Intellectual liberty — The freedom to produce creative expressions and communicate them to others; the freedom to join, leave, create or abstain entirely from any religion.
  • Privacy — The freedom to engage in consensual behaviors with other persons with minimal restriction; a person is not required to divulge or explain their beliefs to anyone.
  • Risk taking — a person is free to take risks with their body (e.g. drinking alcohol or riding horses).
  • Pursuit of opportunity — The equal freedom to move and compete for opportunities without undue restriction (e.g. libertarians tend to favor open immigration policies).
  • Choice in dying or assisted suicide (for at least some circumstances).
  • Pacifism — most libertarians oppose nearly every form of war or aggression.

So far, libertarianism has staked out a lot of territory without saying anything about capitalism, tax policy, corporations or energy policy. Up to this point, I believe libertarianism is entirely compatible with progressive political thinking. The distinction is simply that libertarians tend to structure their thinking in terms of individual freedoms first. Turning once again to Wikipedia, we find a much more flexible definition for civil libertarianism:

Civil libertarianism is a strain of political thought that supports civil liberties, or which emphasizes the supremacy of individual rights and personal freedoms over and against any kind of authority (such as a state, a corporation, social norms imposed through peer pressure, etc.).[1]Civil libertarianism is not a complete ideology; rather, it is a collection of views on the specific issues of civil liberties and civil rights. Because of this, a civil libertarian outlook is compatible with many other political philosophies, and civil libertarianism is found on both the right and left of modern politics.[2]

There are many civil libertarians who fit this definition, including myself. Many of us go around calling ourselves libertarians. My experience has been that this leads to bitter fights with everyone everywhere. Big-L anarcho-capitalist Libertarians — let’s call them “straw man Libertarians” — don’t like what I have to say. Non-libertarians generally assume I’m a straw man when I associate myself with the L-word.

The straw-man caricatures are annoying, especially coming from skeptics who speak of libertarianism as though were pseudoscience or “woo.” It is neither of those things. It is a big tent defined by a particular style of structured thinking about ethics and politics. It’s fair to criticize particular theories or the way they are applied, but you can’t really attack someone just because they prioritize liberty over other values. Eventually these philosophical positions boil down to preference, not proof.

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