Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What's in a name?

Jonathan comments on my last post and it's something I really sympathize with:
"I've been flirting with no longer calling myself a libertarian. If I do, it's mostly because I share a similar general world view. But, I don't see any broad difference between liberals and libertarians. Libertarians are liberals that disagree on specific issues (how to maximize "liberty;" how to maximize social well being; how to maximize the standard of living of the worst off; et cetera). That is, they disagree on the specific direction of change. But, at the same time, both agree that there ought to be change, and that this change ought to benefit as broad a group of people as possible."
As a lot of you probably know I don't really think of myself as a "liberal" either, but there's a lot to like in that gang. It's often a self-definition of convenience. Russ and Arnold were talking about libertarians, conservatives, and liberals. In that set I most feel like I'm a "liberal". But from drones to gun control and certain economic issues I'm not really a liberal. Some people say I come across as a libertarian but I think they're just mistaking the common ground that a lot of classical liberals share and that economists are just more likely to pipe up about. I agree with Jonathan that the underlying goals of a lot of these groups are very similar and derive from classical liberal goals. The specific answers have just diverged over time (hell they were divergent a couple hundred years ago too).

Faction - to use an older term for this sort of naming - is useful and dangerous. Let me modify the founders' thinking on this. Faction is useful in that it reduces transaction costs by providing organization around a common denominator. It is dangerous in that it restricts free thinking. I think that's why I resist calling myself anything because I want to think differently about things without feeling like I have to keep the disagreements to a minimum. I want to be able to muse on a State of the Union address and realize "you know what, I really wouldn't mind at all seeing the federal minimum wage struck down". There's something about being unspoken for that lets you pursue your thoughts where they lead you. The same goes with drones. It wasn't an issue several years ago. Because I feel relatively unattached I've felt fine thinking it through and coming to the conclusions that I come to. I'm sort of liberal - if you need to slot me somewhere that's not the end of the world or anything. But there's no real attachment.

I encourage Jonathan to just drop the label (unless someone is interested in labeling - then he can also feel free to take up libertarianism as a "ya, that's as good a label as any" sort of label). There's something about consciously being unattached that's liberating.

Jonathan continues by criticizing my discussion of modern conservatives (see link). I'll grant that I wasn't entirely satisfied with that but the civilization vs. barbarism didn't sound right either. His proposal - "exclusivity" - is an interesting one.


  1. This really resonates with me, too. I called myself a Rothbardian Libertarian for a long time, and although I still have tremendous respect for Rothbard as a thinker, hanging in those harshly libertarian circles can make it hard to say things like "yeah guys, I think taxation is morally problematic, too. But it might be the best way we have right now to address certain issues. Maybe modest welfare for poor women and kids is okay right now, and we can work on other solutions in the future if we see fit."

    Saying that is difficult in many libertarian circles. So I like your approach. When asked, "are you a libertarian," I generally say yes, as a general view of governance and liberty. But freeing myself from the label has allowed me to think more freely. I wish more of my friends in the libertarian camp would do the same.

  2. Just about nobody thinks the status quo is ideal. Everyone wants "change" closer to their preferred policies. I don't see how that makes liberals & libertarians any more similar to each other than they are to conservatives. I also disagree that most libertarians are Rawlsian mini-maxers (or maxi-miners?). Like David Friedman, I'd say just plain utilitarianism better describes the classical liberal to libertarian tradition. Economists tend to assume something like that approach.

    At one time I identified as a libertarian, then I decided it wasn't helpful to have a label and that I was more interested in consequentialism than rights. I still know I'm not a liberal (except in the very broad sense which includes most Anglo-American political thinking) though.

    1. Right - see the comment section of the last post. "Status quo" in the sense that there is some ideal, usually associated with the past or tradition or sometimes current institutions that conservatives are loathe to change from. Maybe "tradition" is better than "status quo" but that has baggage too. I don't know what a good word is for it.

      Put it this way - conservatives think the ideal array of policies is some sort of combination of approaches from today and the past, for the most part while liberals think the ideal array is some sort of combination of approaches from today and in the future, for the most part. Of course it's not perfect but it makes more sense to me than civilization vs. barbarism and I haven't seen anyone propose something better.

      The strength vs. weakness thing, I think is important too in how conservatives classify how they approach novel or uncertain situations vs. how others approach novel or uncertain situations. You don't see the sort of strength vs. weakness rhetoric among libertarians or liberals nearly as often.

      I would agree with you that most libertarians are Rawlsian mini-maxers. Did anyone say they were?

    2. "how to maximize the standard of living of the worst off" was the phrase that made me think Rawlsianism was being claimed, though on re-reading I see it was just an example and that Jonathan also raised regular utilitarianism just before it.

      Yes, conservatives are more likely to prefer the past. Libertarians will prefer the past in lots of situations (most notably in rejecting the New Deal). Liberals are sometimes accused of that (Brink Lindsay's "nostalgianomics" or Orin Kerr on the mythical golden age of fourth amendment jurisprudence), but to a lesser extent. It seems odd to talk of a mix of policies of the future, since those don't exist yet. Once you assume your political ideology will win out, all of the policies of the future will be the correct ones!

  3. If Jonathan thinks an American libertarian today means somebody who advocates any government policy that will maximize "liberty" and the welfare of the worst off, then I agree he shouldn't call himself a libertarian.

    (I'm not saying that to be a smart*ss, either. I'm saying there is an entire branch of libertarians who do not at all agree with Jonathan's characterization. It's weird, libertarians are simultaneously accused of following some weirdo axiomatic rule to generate ethical precepts, and at the same time they're criticized for not really distinguishing themselves from welfare state utilitarians. But we've already had this argument Daniel, I don't need to repeat it.)

    1. I define libertarians as people who want to see mass extinctions from space rocks myself.

      You don't revel in mass extinction? You're not a libertarian.

    2. I see where you're coming from, but I think if you take the perspective of a consequentialist who is pretty sure about how the world works Jonathan's description isn't so odd. There are a lot of self-styled libertarians out there that are quite far from the anarchist pole of the movement.

    3. I don't just think it, I know it. Take the "bleeding heart libertarians," for example, many of which claim, more-or-less, that the best society is the one where the worst off have the highest standard of living. (Note, I don't personally think this is the right approach, either.) I know there are libertarians who don't follow this strand at all. Daniel didn't quote the entire comment, but I suggest that some libertarians (i.e. maybe Rothbard) are closer to conservatives than to liberals -- for example, those willing to "push a button" to create their ideal society. This is another reason I want to drop the label; I'm not sure how much in common I have with libertarians like these (apart from beliefs on specific policies).

  4. While I do see references to civilization/barbarism and oppressor/oppressed in speech, I don't see any difference between them in substance other than that past/future, fearful/hopeful, negative/positive disposition, and the perspective, the former from that of the powerful and privileged, noble, civilized, and entitled to rule, and the latter from that of the subjects of that power and privilege. When the barbaric rule, the civilized become the oppressed and the oppressed become the oppressors. The impulse is to do whatever is necessary to regain power but that requires expansion and extension to the previously excluded but evolution is hard.


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