Saturday, December 17, 2011

I really wish people would be less haphazard with the use of the word "libertarianism" - particularly if they're defending it

I use it on here to mean some variant of a minarchist - and when I talk about anarcho-capitalism I usually refer to it by that name ("anarcho-capitalism") or a similar one.

That definition in and of itself can mean a lot of things, of course, but this definition on the Bleeding Hearts Libertarian blog is next to useless. Fernando Teson writes:

"By “libertarian institutions” I mean here institutions that allow all kinds of mutually beneficial arrangements, which include exchanges in private markets and government-induced correction of market failures, along with constitutional constraints on the power of government to avoid government failure."

OK, but this is what almost every American that talks or writes about government and the economy supports. What is this supposed to demarcate, really? Not only do I support libertarian institutions under this definition, but I am an extremely partisan libertarian (if this is what a libertarian institution is).

I get the same sense from Mark Pennington and just about everything I've ever read about "robust political economy". It's a defense of a constitutionally limited, federal government in a market society. We all support that. To be sure, Pennington et al. do a superb job putting into words the reasons why we all support that. But we all do. It's not productive to call this libertarianism.

UPDATE: And a word of advice to commenters. If your instinct is to inform me that I don't actually think something that I am under the impression that I do think - stop. Stop writing. Just save us all the trouble.


  1. Haphazard use of the word "libertarianism," or haphazard use of the term "market failure?" Or both? But, I agree that BHL's definition is a bit loose. It's as if they think everyone recognizes government as non-beneficial, but even I recognize my student aid as beneficial.

  2. Daniel,

    You've been sloppy in your use of the term in the past. You have firmed it up a bit over time though.

  3. Daniel,

    I have found a similar frustration with your use of the term "democracy." I have no idea what you mean by it, and it plays a large role in your denunciations of "libertarians" from the perspective of (your interpretation of) classical liberalism.

    CAUTION: I have not read much of your, only recently came across this blog. So if you have publications that presents your conception of the concept of democracy or your theory of legitimate democratic governance, my apologies.

  4. By democracy I mean the ability of citizens to decide things in government based on some variant of a majority rule.

    I don't pretend, though, that that's a category that you can put a small group of people in and contrast them sharply with others, the way libertarianism is treated. At least recently, I've discussed democracy with respect to libertarianism simply as something that they're often quite critical of, contrary to classical liberals.

  5. Jonathan -
    Market failures I think have other problems - it's just a terrible term! But I think most people know what is meant by it.

    I'm not sure what you mean by their presumption that everyone assumes government is non-beneficial I'm not sure they were trying to talk about everyone here - he's trying to define libertarian institutions.

  6. Hume,

    Tocqueville argued that democracies abhor diversity; that democracy is the enemy of variety in human life; he was right.

  7. On Classical Liberals:

    I wouldn't say that classical liberals weren't critical of democracy. For instance, I would classify most of the founding fathers as classical liberals, but you would be very hard-pressed to find any that spoke highly of democracy. In fact, they spoke pretty negatively about democracy. Obviously, republicanism has an element of democracy contained within it, but there are also many checks to how democratic our republican system of government operates.

    It is almost as if the American form of republicanism was a compromise whose goal was to allow the people to have a say in government, but to ensure that it was as least democratic as possible (given the goal). Like they were trying to make it extremely difficult for majority rule to present itself.

  8. On Libertarianism:

    As you know, I am an anarcho-capitalist philosophically. What you probably don't know is that I am a classical liberal practically. Basically, I feel that the ultimate goal of humanity is to rid itself of a monopoly power-center, but that I am not of the opinion that this is something that can be done overnight or that current society is prepared to undertake. I guess that you could call me a pragmatist in this sense.

    I have always thought of libertarianism (minarchism) and classical liberalism as levels or degrees of the same core beliefs. Both believe in property rights, non-aggression, individualism, capitalism, rule of law,etc as it pertains to the order of society. Where they differ is how rigorously they hold these core beliefs with regard to the system of societal order (i.e. the system of laws or governance).

    Where classical liberalism is more attuned to a democratic-republican order of governance (with great limitations on government, but also with greater societal input in governance), libertarianism (minarchism) prefers a more, well, minarchist order of government (with even greater limitations on government and societal input in governance). I would classify both as still being within the libertarian construct.

    Anarcho-capitalist (or, market anarchism) is also within that libertarian construct, but it takes those core beliefs to their ultimate conclusions. To be honest, I don't think that AC could have come about without Austrian economics, because it essentially puts the entire order of governance into the hands of the market entirely. Essentially, AC takes the position that a monopoly of power, no matter how well constructed, is detrimental to society, and that only the market can govern justly. To compare it to how I expressed classical liberalism and minarchism, AC limits governmental power to zero, but allows the highest degree of societal input in governance.

    When I think of libertarianism in terms of a definition, I usually think of this range of libertarianism as described above, because they all share the same attributes, just to a different degree. However, if you want to put it into one single definition, I agree that minarchism would probably be the most acceptable, even if it is often the source of confusion between libertarianism and Objectivism. I do not, however, believe that those who call themselves "left libertarians" have very much to do with libertarianism at all (esp. due to their position on democracy and property rights).

    Usually, I will say that I am an Austro-libertarian of the Rothbardian sort to avoid any ambiguity or confusion as to where I am coming from.


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