Saturday, January 21, 2012

More libertarian labeling puzzlement

There are times that it seems to me the only difference between a liberal calling themselves a libertarian and a liberal not calling themselves a libertarian is that they like the ethos of one or the other group. Or perhaps they have friends that thought similarly and called themselves libertarians. I don't know - but analytically I find the term to be very undistinctive in a lot of cases. I've talked several times on here about Mark Pennington's defense of libertarianism which to me sounds like a defense of the liberal tradition in general - anyone in the liberal tradition.

I had the same feeling reading this description of John Tomasi's new book, linked to by Don Boudreaux. Like Don, I agree it sounds like an interesting read.

Unlike Don, the description makes me feel like I'm a "libertarian" by Tomasi's standards and Tomasi's argument about the relationship between liberty, property, fairness, justice, etc.. Here it is:

"Can libertarians care about social justice? In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi argues that they can and should. Drawing simultaneously on moral insights from defenders of economic liberty such as F. A. Hayek and advocates of social justice such as John Rawls, Tomasi presents a new theory of liberal justice. This theory, free market fairness, is committed to both limited government and the material betterment of the poor. Unlike traditional libertarians, Tomasi argues that property rights are best defended not in terms of self-ownership or economic efficiency but as requirements of democratic legitimacy. At the same time, he encourages egalitarians concerned about social justice to listen more sympathetically to the claims ordinary citizens make about the importance of private economic liberty in their daily lives. In place of the familiar social democratic interpretations of social justice, Tomasi offers a "market democratic" conception of social justice: free market fairness. Tomasi argues that free market fairness, with its twin commitment to economic liberty and a fair distribution of goods and opportunities, is a morally superior account of liberal justice. Free market fairness is also a distinctively American ideal. It extends the notion, prominent in America's founding period, that protection of property and promotion of real opportunity are indivisible goals. Indeed, according to Tomasi, free market fairness is social justice, American style."

A lot of people don't think much of this "defining libertarianism" thing. What really interests me about it is that it's a window on how people view others. So when a libertarian offers a definition of "libertarian" that describes particular views on liberty, the market, government, etc. - and they consider someone like me to not be a libertarian, the implication is they think I don't agree with those views of liberty, the market, and government.

It's fascinating to me, then, that in so many cases not only do my views coincide with these definitions of "libertarian" - they coincide quite strongly.

What is it about the way humans think about ideology that this is possible?

I think that's why some of these discussions interest me - because it' offers some insights into a broader class of human behavior and understanding. It's more than just a definition.


  1. I take back those first two sentences as phrased.

    I think there does seem to be a pretty real difference between those who do and don't call themselves a libertarian.

    I think definitions of libertarianism rarely capture that difference.

    This doesn't really matter all that much if it's just a definition that tries to put libertarians in the most appealing light, as either a promotional strategy or a personal rationalization.

    It DOES matter somewhat more if you have managed to convince yourself that certain illiberalism are true of non-libertarians, simply because you've defined things that way and have bought into your own definition.

  2. Yes, Daniel. Many things in life aren't able to be reduced down to a simple definition, especially political ideology. This is true whether you're talking about conservatism, American liberalism, classical liberalism, socialism, Fabianism, greenism, and just about any other "ism" that you can think of.

    I would say that with regard to libertarianism, the primary "common ground" that all libertarians share are the ideas of individualism and non-aggression, as well as opposition to the state in varying levels. The primary difference, in my mind, between the different areas of libertarianism is how they treat property rights, and what "things" constitute private property, as opposed to "human property". This is basically what distinguishes the divide between what is called left-libertarianism and right-libertarianism.

    The form of libertarianism that you are most confronted with is the natural rights form of libertarianism, or even Austro-libertarianism (when economics comes into the matter)-- it is important to make these distinctions.

    Sure, there are disagreements on the particulars in form, just as in any political philosophy, but it should be clear that with regard to libertarianism the major theme throughout is individual liberty.

    The most prominent form of libertarianism in America today is that of the "natural rights" form of libertarianism. It is quite simple: the core principles are individualism, private property and non-aggression.

  3. Just to clarify, I mean "human property" as in the collective form of ownership (i.e. land), not owning other humans.

  4. First - I agree. The challenge of defining per se isn't particularly important. But your attempt makes my point (which is nothing against you - it's just why I think this is important to think carefully about before running with a particular view). You offer:

    "I would say that with regard to libertarianism, the primary "common ground" that all libertarians share are the ideas of individualism and non-aggression, as well as opposition to the state in varying levels."

    That, to me, does not distinguish libertarians from non-libertarians at all. That seems to me to be a definition of liberalism. I would call myself a libertarian by this definition. Part of this is that the term "aggression" is a widely contested one.

    If you tightened some of those phrases (i.e., perhaps "opposition to the state in all forms"), you might get anarchism but then we wouldn't be talking about libertarianism anymore.

    I think you're mostly right about the differences within a particular "-ism" too. Those seem to be better defined in most cases.

  5. More than anything, I want to emphasize it's not that defining is particularly important.

    What's more important is that the way we define things reflects how we actually think about other people.

  6. Yes, I understand what you're saying. The primary reason that I had to ease back a bit is because I know that not all libertarians go full-out into anti-statism; as I have mention in other posts, I am not a fan of the word anarchism, because there are still archons in the stateless form of libertarianism-- anarchism is not without governance, it is just without a state.

    I personally feel that all forms of libertarianism are derived from classical liberalism in one way or another, but the differences primarily are with regard to the degree of which they view the state as a hinderance or as a limited facilitator of liberty. I think that all forms are highly questioning of the state's role in liberty as a rule (thus the limitations on state power), except that some are willing to view the state as a "necessary evil", even if hesitantly.

    With regard to aggression, this is usually with reference to property rights, and the main objection in my mind is not necessarily with regard to aggression itself (most of us are against aggression), rather it is with regard to the aggression upon property rights. This is the reason that I distinguished between left and right libertarianism, because they have differing views as to what is to be private property and what is not, thus such aggression can be interpreted from such perspective.

    As far as other "isms" being better defined, I don't know about that. I mean, when you look at the differences between pure Marxist socialism vs social democracy and Fabianism, there are vast differences between the two. In fact, I would define modern American liberalism as being more in line with social democracy than libertarianism, for sure. Especially when you look at things like redistribution and positive vs negative rights.

    s for how we actually think about other people in terms of defining ideology, I would tend to think that that is far more of a personal (individual) value judgement than an ideological one. I personally try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and be cool with people. Sure, arguments arise and tempers flair sometimes, but that's part of being human. When it comes down to it, all things in the social realm are difficult to define precisely, because we as humans can only define the social construct as we perceive it in our own minds.

  7. And this is a good point: "I personally feel that all forms of libertarianism are derived from classical liberalism in one way or another, but the differences primarily are with regard to the degree of which they view the state as a hinderance or as a limited facilitator of liberty."

    This sort of Xeno's paradox approach is a part of it... I have a hard time conceding points about liberty, though, which is probably why I try to move things away from "the degree to which..." kind of talk. I prefer to think of it as two slightly different conceptions of what "liberty" is, so that from my view I'm "more" pro-liberty and from their view they're "more" pro-liberty. But it's likely some combination of both, depending on exactly what we're talking about.

    The pacificsm example (not exactly libertarianism) is nice to illustrate this because it's so stark. I would NEVER concede that pacifists are more "pro-peace" than me, because pacifism just seems like such an ultimately destructive worldview. Intentions don't matter much in these areas - if men were angels, etc.. Pacifism is simply not a pro-peace way to approach the world, in my view. But then there are others who recently have been shocked at what they perceive to be the belligerence of some of my views.

    This sort of thing is not a matter of degrees - it's a matter of two fundamentally irreconcilable views of peace.

    1. *two fundamentally irreconcilable views of peace which - I should clarify - is probably analogous to two fundamentally irreconcilable views of liberty and aggression when discussing libertarianism. That's why I brought it up.

    2. I don't believe that pacifism is necessarily a part of either libertarianism, liberalism, or any related ideology, which is why I brought in the whole individual value judgement concept, as well as property (which I think is where the real divide falls). I think that the idea of pacifism comes from outside of the constructs under discussion. I would consider myself a libertarian, but I would not consider myself a pacifist.

      My feeling is that pacifism begets more aggression; the passive shall be plundered, killed, made slaves, etc by those who rely on aggression for their own benefit. After having been involved with the taking of lives, I have found that defense is justifiable (Ex: I don't fault Iraqis for the killing of American occupiers if such occupiers pose a real and imminent threat to life). More important is the initiation of force/aggression upon innocent peoples, not the defensive response. To put it simply, if you pose a weapon against me, you're going to die. If you pose a fist to me, you're brain is going to go into sleepy-time. If you steal from me, I am going to take it back forthwith. Of course, this is all contingent upon the moment of incidence; if the moment of incidence has passed, so has the opportunity for immediate response, the only recourse then being the rule of law. The NAP does not preclude these actions, it only deals with the initiation of such actions (not the defense against the same).

    3. I agree completely. My point in bringing in pacifism was not to associate it with libertarianism, but to point out how words like "liberty" and "peace" and "aggression" are more contested than people think.

      re: "My feeling is that pacifism begets more aggression"

      I agree, and I would extend this point to say that pacifism is an implicit endorsement of aggression.

      My point was to say that the same goes for libertarianism. Because people who label themselves "libertarian" and those who don't see liberty and the state somewhat differently, I can say "my feeling is that libertarianism begets less liberty and is actually an implicit endorsement of coercion" at the same time that someone else can claim that libertarianism increases liberty and rejects coercion.

    4. One more point on all this - because the disagreement is often over terminology (aggression, peace, liberty, the state, etc.), in these sorts of contested territories within liberalism, each side is going to look extremely Orwellian to the other side.

    5. "each side is going to look extremely Orwellian to the other side."

      So, you've noticed that, have you? LOL

      Yes, I agree. Often times I think it is almost akin to what TV shows people like, what kind of music they like, whether you're a "butt man" or a "boob man", etc.

      Since I am a musician, I often like to make a certain analogy. I've played with a lot of fantastic musicians and we've made fantastic music together, but when it comes to expressing our influences or what we feel to be truly "great" music, we often disagree (vehemently even). Even within groups of people who enjoy the same genre of music have heated debates over who was good at this or that, etc. Most people, though... They can care less about all of that, all they want is something that makes them feel good. You, me and everybody else here that study such things can argue against each other until we're blue in the face, we rarely will change each other's minds or be able to fully express what it is that makes our position entirely superior. In the end, all that really matters is what the general public thinks-- they're the one's that dictate the reality of our surroundings.

    6. I kind of did a little switcharoo. When I shifted to the point of us "studying such things", I was talking about economics and political theory (not music theory). It's kind of obvious that that is what I was aiming at, but I still like to be somewhat thorough.

  8. It's more than just a definition.

    Or we haven't gotten to the truly salient definition.

    Working on something earlier I wrote, I think there needs to be a definitional divide between libertarians who see the government as an inefficient or unnecessary way of managing social affairs (Mises, Hayek, Friedman) and the Libertarians who support the NAP and such (Rothbard, Murphy, etc.)

    People constantly juggle those terms around interchangeably because one person can be a part of both sides. The trouble you're experiencing is that some people are defending libertarians as "pro market, government is inefficient" types where you might certainly fit in. I don't imagine you'd feel TOO out of place at a Libertarian Party convention aside from the glamorizing of certain polarizing figures.

    You would certainly feel out of place in Auburn listening to Hoppe give lectures on the NAP and argumentation. So there's a difference.

    What you're getting exasperated about is possibly that people simply haven't defined the utilitarian libertarians well enough. Saying "Freedom works really well!" would presumably include people like you because you fall in the more general liberal tradition. Even libertarians don't make this distinction very often

  9. There are problems with the NAP too, based around the definition of aggression. This is why I have trouble with pacifists or people who have problems with dealing with inherited inequality or externalities.

    Those sorts of people - the Rothbard/Murphy types - are "worse" than the Hayek/Friedman types on aggression in my opinion because they justify this sort of aggression rather than opposing it.

    In other words, I don't see the difference between Bob and me as being that I don't care about aggression and he does care about aggression. I see the difference between him and me as being that we have two very different views of "aggression".

    Certainly the NAP/pragmatic divide is a good clear divide amongst libertarians. But I don't think I'm focusing on the pragmatic definition and saying "hey I could fall under that" to the exclusion of the NAP definition.

    To use your words - what I'm "getting exasperated over" (and I'm really not exasperated literally - just very interested in/intrigued by) is that some people would actually look at me and say I'm more OK with aggression than Bob or Rothbard were. That is unfathomable to me. But some people think of the situation to me. These definitions speak volumes about how we think of each other, and that is very interesting.

  10. On this aggression point - I should add that this is why a lot of people think of libertarians as being "reactionaries". I think that term has too much baggage associated with it, so I don't personally use it in association with libertarians. But I can appreciate what people are getting at. Libertarians are not perceived as being non-aggressive because they do defend the existence of what others perceive as a highly aggressive power structure. This is only reinforced when you move to people like Rothbard, who claim to be non-aggressive.

    That's the irony. What gets billed as a "non-aggression principle" is not considered non-aggressive by a lot of people. Martin Luther King is a good person to contrast with Rothbard. Both men claimed to be anti-aggression. I'm not sure King ever knew of Rothbard, but Rothbard has had some very bad things to say about King. Who follows a true "non-aggression principle"? That is very much a contested point. Simply citing the NAP doesn't mean there's a defensible NAP to speak of that these sorts of people are following.

    I'm not trying to dump on Rothbard. I'm simply noting that a lot of these terms are contested.

    1. "Sticks and stones will...." We're talking about aggression on property, not mere words that offend.

  11. @DKuehn

    I just don't see much sense in characterizing an unintentionally created institutional framework as "aggressive" or "unjust" or "coercive". It's such an abuse of the legitimate meaning of these words. When a "libertarian" claims that the characteristic feature of their belief system is the NAP they mean it with respect to deliberate individual actions. And I think you know this, but you don't seem to appreciate its importance. This really basic distinction constituted the latter half of Hayek's life work.

  12. Daniel,

    I think you're right on here. 'Libertarianism' is operating within the liberal tradition (Samuel Freeman's claims notwithstanding). As such, it revolves around certain values and political principles (liberty, equality, rights, etc.). But these value concepts do not interpret themselves; rather, they are open to alternative interpretations and thus disagreement. Different philosophers with different political world views offer competing conceptions and interpretations (negative liberty vs. positive liberty, 'autonomy,' 'dignity'), as well as providing different weights to the values/principles involved. As a result, an agreement on abstract and fundamental liberal principles (liberty, equality, rights) leads to wildly different political platforms based on differing mediating principles and weighing mechanisms. In other words, it's messy yet fundamentally important to make sure that different individuals engaged in political philosophical discussion are not talking past one another. One cannot simply scream "democracy you twit!" or "liberty you fascist!" In order to engage in meaningful and progressive discourse, we must clarify the differing conceptions and value interpretations being brought to the table.

  13. "You would certainly feel out of place in Auburn listening to Hoppe give lectures on the NAP and argumentation."

    In fact, you'd feel like you were listening to a nutcase argue nonsense!

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