Sunday, August 4, 2013

Stupid, big-tent definitions of "libertarianism" that make pretty much anyone a libertarian are proof of how politically oriented a given libertarian really is...

...you just don't get that sort of definition unless you're dealing with an activisty type that wants to get political power because these definitions are completely worthless EXCEPT insofar as they get everyone thinking in the back of their head "hey I support that". And the only reason why you'd want them to support a white-washed version of what you're selling is if you're more interested in their political (or, I suppose, other superficial) support and not their actual support.

George Will had this to say on This Week:
"Well, actually, there is a rising Libertarian stream that Chris Christie has said is a very dangerous thought. So let's be clear about what Libertarianism is and what it is not. It is not anarchism. It has a role for government. What Libertarianism says, it comes in many flavors and many degrees of severity, it basically says before the government abridges the freedom of an individual or the freedom of several individuals contracting together, that government ought to have: A, a compelling reason, and; B, a Constitutional warrant for doing so."

Is that really what libertarianism is? Really? If so then you can count on a strong majority of the three hundred odd million of us to vote for Rand Paul, because this is pretty much what every single American with a modicum of interest in public life believes.

The other option is that Will has no clue what he's talking about when he opines on libertarianism but that seems implausible, so the logical answer is he's another politico that sees a big chance coming up to get some power.

21 comments:

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    1. Well this is a transcript of something spoken - I wouldn't take that to mean anything in particular (he's talking about Rand Paul after all, who isn't a big-L).

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    2. Most libertarians I know wouldn't consider Rand Paul a small-L, but my guess is that in the end he could get their votes. Christie was talking about libertarianism in both parties, so I would call that big-L.

      For Christie, it's basically pre-2016 posturing, as well as a complaint about the bipartisan narrow loss of the Amash ammendment. 205 votes against the status quo on what many consider a libertarian issue.

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    3. I was mostly just joking around a bit, but I'll tell you a little story.

      I used to be a member of the Libertarian Party. But one thing that I learned when going to Libertarian functions or talking with some of their leadership and membership is that none of them had anything in common with me politically. We weren't reading the same subjects, we weren't expounding the same ideas, we really had nothing in common at all, philosophically speaking, other than the fact that we had a certain distrust of the state (or "the government"). Keep in mind that I was not always an anarcho-libertarian, at that time I was mostly a minarchist, and when I joined I would have been more accurately labeled as a constitutionalist, yet even still I didn't fit in there. I do certainly consider myself a libertarian.

      I've said many things in the past about what I think libertarianism is, but what I've finally settled on is that a libertarian is, "anybody who holds individual liberty as the paramount principle by which society should be governed" (Daniel, unlike many people, you're aware of my feelings regarding the distinction between the terms "government" and the "state", so I chose that word intentionally)

      I think that if you read that definition carefully that it will better put into perspective the different theories espoused by libertarians. However, I've noticed that even within libertarianism, that many of these theories take a wrong turn or simply contradict the goal. For instance, many within the LP take a position that ultimately concludes "we must use the state to limit the state" or "we must use the state to increase liberty". From the perspective of my own definition of libertarianism, you can see how this might prove troublesome to me, and why I had to eventually resign my membership. I just don't see how that is even possible with a state-form of government, because it represents the negation of liberty.

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  2. Well, yes, to a large degree, this IS what libertarianism is at is core. The problem is that the presumption of liberty and the force of the reason necessary to override liberty is largely a matter of degree - the libertarian and the non-libertarian may be alike in their desire that government have a good reason when in order to abridge human liberty, but they probably differ as to what they regard as a good reason. Often, the libertarian will require much more persuasion before allowing government to intervene in human affairs.

    Aside from this difference, Will also does not mention that the word "liberty" will often mean different things to different people. What is liberty to a libertarian may look like a lack of liberty to a republican or democrat.

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    1. Precisely, which I would have thought is the whole reason why this is NOT a definition of libertarian anymore than "vegetable" is a definition of lettuce at least.

      re: "Often, the libertarian will require much more persuasion before allowing government to intervene in human affairs. "

      Well, I think they find different arguments persuasive.

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  3. I think you're right Daniel. What differentiates libertarians from, say, any liberal is what arguments they find compelling.

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    1. Which is why I consider myself a liberal. If I call myself a libertarian it's to highlight the fact that I have libertarian opinions on some major issues.

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  4. Context is important. Christie was using a big tent definition quite similar to Will's definition. Also Christie's attack was on those seeking to restrict NSA powers. The recent bipartisan ammendment is representative of what Christie was complaining about.

    It's actually a shrewd move on Christie's part. A lot of Dems especially older Dems have went from anti patriot act to favoring more of that.

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  5. George Will's definition is bad not just for the reasons stated but also because it defines libertarianism as something that can exist only in the context of post-Constitution America, which is quite absurd.

    Out of curiosity Daniel, how would you define libertarianism, as encompassing each of its various sub-types, yet also in a way that you reject?

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    1. Agree on the Constitution thing, definitely. And that doesn't just go for the Lysander Spooner types - that goes for everyone that likes the Constitution too! Presumably nobody thinks that everything would implode without it.

      I tend to think of liberals in general as people whose goal is to minimize coercion, and I consider libertarians to be those who think that minimizing coercion is essentially coterminous with minimizing the state (or in the case of anarcho-capitalists, actually eliminating it).

      Obviously a limited state is very important to all liberals, but you really start into libertarianism if you're the sort that perceives liberty and the state as being opposites.

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    2. Hmm, I'm not sure I at all agree with that. I consider Denmark for example to be a very libertarian place and it has a very maximal state. I would prefer if you clarified that as administrative state. Though I still tend to think of it as something independent to the state.

      On the constitution point, there was a post on BHL a while back about this very topic if I remember correctly.

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  6. My favourite platitudinous libertarian slogan is "freedom lover". It must be a way of distinguishing oneself from the freedom-hating masses. (You obviously don't love freedom if it's not explicitly stated in your Twitter bio!)

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    1. Ugh - and "freedom movement" too.

      +10

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    2. My favorite platitudinous liberal slogan is "I love it when I wake up in the morning and Barack Obama is President!" Dissent no longer being patriotic.

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  7. It is a particularly bad definition in that it encompasses almost all liberals in the classical sense. One could think of many horrible things the government could do with a "compelling" reason and Constitutional warrant. Our history is pockmarked with sufficient examples. What we find compelling differs dramatically. Also, as a libertarian, I do not find anything about the Constitution sacrosanct, since it clearly did not have the approval of significant swaths of the population (slaves, women, etc.). I admit that if you have a government, a Constitution is a good starting point, though I have seen arguments to the contrary.

    I think much of the difference between libertarians and other liberals has to do with claims about which mechanism (market, gov't, or some mix) should/would lead to desired social results. Claims that the difference is about coercion are BS.

    As much as I generally oppose state intervention, I tend to disagree with one of the comments above that the state cannot expand the pool of liberty. It clearly has done so for many people in our own country. I would merely claim that market solutions would have been more durable, though perhaps more painful. The worry I have is that by expanding liberty for those who were downtrodden it might take on powers that it could use later against others. An example would be gay marriage. A preferable solution for me is to abolish government regulation of marriage, but clearly government expanding the right to everyone regardless of sexual preference is preferable and provides more liberty to more people than not doing so. I just worry that if the state retains the power, it may use it in the opposite direction with the wrong people in power.

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  8. You're generally going to run round and round in circles if you're preoccupied with what something "is" (particularly when it comes to moving targets like political philosophies).

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    1. Some definitions are much better prospects for definitions than others.

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  9. Any worthwhile definition of libertarianism is going to be a broad one.

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  10. Whatever anyone thinking about the term "Libertarian" in general, we need a snappier term for "Civil Libertarian" after what the NSA have been up to recently. There's no proper opposition to it because half of those opposed are nominally "Progressives" and the other half are nominally "Conservatives".

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  11. I am by almost any sensible standard a libertarian. But I am emphatically NOT a Libertarian. The word has been hijacked.
    'Besmirched' would be my description actually. But the one thing it no longer means is someone who favors liberty; often the reverse in fact.

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