Monday, January 16, 2012

Definitions of Libertarianism, contd.

- For example, according to the Libertarian Party website (this is one example, don't freak out), I am certainly a libertarian. But this makes sense - the Libertarian Party wants to get elected and broaden its following so it offers a broader definition. This isn't particularly surprising, either. If I were to look at the Republican Party website or the Democratic Party website for a definition of what they stand for, I'd probably be a Democrat and a Republican in addition to being a Libertarian.

- The Institute for Humane Studies offers a range of definitions. Under some of these definitions I would be a libertarian, and under some of them I wouldn't be a libertarian. I am a libertarian under the initial definition IHS offers. Then they give Nigel Ashford's definition. I meet all of his ten qualifications except for one: (1.) "liberty as the primary political value". Surprise! Surprise! That's where Jeff Sachs identified the primary difference too! It's not like he just made this stuff up. Liberty is not the primary political value for me, it is co-equal with a couple other classical liberal values. And that is really the only reason why you don't see me calling myself a libertarian. Other definitions of libertarianism - some of which include me and some of which don't - follow Ashford's definition on the IHS website.

- The Wikipedia page for libertarianism starts with a broad definition of libertarianism that does include me and then goes in detail from there. It offers one definition from Rod Long which is both interesting and vague. In an expansive interpretation of his definition I'm a libertarian. But knowing how Long views things, I doubt I fall under his intended interpretation. But yet again we see the same trend that we saw with the Libertarian Party definition: making definitions vague so that they're more palatable.

- I am a libertarian by David Boaz's definition.


Let me know if you find others. I don't think I'm pointing out anything too outrageous in the last post or this one. Any definition of libertarianism that includes me probably isn't a good definition of libertarianism. Any definition of libertarianism that doesn't include me and seems to include a lot of libertarians is probably getting close to a good definition of libertarianism.

That's the whole purpose of definitions, right - making useful distinctions????


  1. I believe, and I think most other libertarians of various stripes would ultimately agree, that libertarianism describes a group of people with a fairly wide range of political stances and policy prescriptions. If I were to give it the widest definitive boundaries I would say it includes all people who see liberty (as generally defined by self ownership and extensions of such - property rights) as a constraining value among other values. Where you fall on the libertarian spectrum depends largely on how constraining you believe that value ultimately is I suppose.

    And there is the problem, as you rightly point out. There aren't a whole lot of people in the Western World who wouldn't qualify as libertarians under such a definition. So it's obviously a bit more complicated than that...but maybe not by much. I guess a more relevant definition could be derived by looking at the spectrum of broader libertarianism (as all-inclusive as that may be) and classifying anything that starts to meaningfully deviate from the median view regarding the trade-offs amongst those values as being "libertarian." Maybe that would give you a somewhat useful definition in a relative sense.

    And it's worth noting, of course, that the broadness of the term lends itself to the incessant infighting that occurs in "libertarian" circles. In some circles Dennis Miller is a libertarian. In other circles Ayn Rand is a libertarian of sorts. If you can put both of them in the same political boat as Murray Rothbard, it does bring serious questioning regarding how useful that term is in the end.

  2. Ryan -
    I think these are good points. But I would point out that we already have words that encompass what you're talking about: "liberalism" (used in context not to mean exclusively the progressives/left) and/or "classical liberalism".

  3. Then again some people try to co-opt even those. Don Boudreaux has said, for example, that Paul Krugman is not a liberal in this sense (ie - in the "liberal tradition" sense). It's beyond absurd, but some people assert things like that.

  4. Is a libertarian with a billion dollars equal to a libertarian without? No. But there's a lot of money being spent to buy mindspace for that assertion.


  5. Every discussion on political philosophy is a merry-go-round of people disagreeing with each other's vague pet definitions. You might want to get off the ride before you start projectile vomiting at the pony in front of you.

  6. The term "libertarian" does make a useful distinction. If you want to further distinguish, add some more words when describing yourself/someone.

    "Any definition of libertarianism that doesn't include me and seems to include a lot of libertarians ..."

    Ah, never mind.


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