Libertarianism, Liberalism

Why I’m Not a Bleeding-Heart Libertarian

Matt Z. generously invited me to guest-post here at BHL, so I’ve decided to return his generosity by dumping on the entire enterprise, with love. Perhaps this will somehow turn out to be constructive.

I’m not interested in identifying which among the many kinds of bleeding-heart libertarian I am because I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.

Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.) Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights. I could go on.

Given the prevailing public understanding of “libertarianism,” this ain’t it and I’m no libertarian. And it’s not at all clear to me what is to be gained by trying to get people to retrofit the label to fit my idiosyncratic politics. At any rate, that’s not a project I’m interested in. I am interested in what it means to be free, and the role of freedom in flourishing or meaningful or valuable lives.

One thing I think people need in order to be free in the sense I prefer (I’m not going to spell it out here) is a high level of economic freedom, more or less as the libertarians who make indices of economic freedom  understand it. Standard academic liberals badly understate the importance of economic freedom to freedom more generally. This conviction, that the protection of robust economic rights is essential to any regime shaped by a genuine concern for liberty–is essential to a fully liberal regime–is more than enough get you branded a sort of libertarian by many standard liberals. But one can hold to that conviction while siding with standard liberals against libertarians on many, many other important questions.  The argument over which rights and liberties ought to be treated as constitutional fixed points, and thus ought to be off the table of democratic negotiation, is not a debate between liberals and the people who think taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal enterprise. It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.

“Liberaltarian,” ugly as it may be, has been useful to me because it offers a convenient label for a position that is neither standard liberalism nor a standard libertarian altenative to standard liberalism. Jason Brennan and John Tomasi’s “neo-classical liberalism” is better, in that it isn’t such a barbaric neologism and doesn’t suggest as much affinity with libertarianism, but also worse, in that it suggests something like the liberalism of neo-classical economists, which it sort of is, but needn’t be.

Labels aside, I’m more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers. After all, there are many orders of magnitude more standard liberals than standard libertarians, and they possess many orders of magnitude more influence. We pick our fights, and I’d like to pick ones that stand a chance of making a real difference.

Somebody’s going to ask “Isn’t Ron Paul making a difference?” So I’m going to say, “Yes.” None of this is to say that right-fusionism of the Ron Paul variety isn’t now having an influence, or that none of it is good. I’m glad to see Paul spreading a few profoundly important ideas about foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean Paul’s decades of bilking paranoid bigots with bullshit prophesies of hyperinflationary race war was really a stroke of strategic genius after all. Or maybe it means it was. But that doesn’t make it right. I don’t think Paul would be where he is today without all those years of vile fear-mongering. And I don’t think anyone ought to get away with climbing up that evil ladder, kicking it away, then pretending he was born a thousand feet off the ground in the pure mountain air right there next to heaven. He knew what he was doing, chose to do it, and none of it can be justified by a little TV-time for salutary anti-imperialist and free-market ideas. I’d rather not be affiliated with a “movement” that includes him in even a conflicted way.

Anyway, I would encourage other decreasingly standard-libertarian libertarian-ish types to hasten their passage through the liminal “bleeding heart” stage and just come out as liberals. Or, better yet, to come out as inscrutably idiosyncratic. You are not alone. Well, if you’re inscrutably idiosyncratic, you are. But the similarly inscrutably idiosyncratic can be alone together. I’ve heard some good things about individualism. Maybe some of us should try it.

  • Anonymous

    you must be a shill for the NWO regime.
    but seriously. with the problems we’re facing thoday, this lukewarm wishywashy incremental “pragmatic” approach is just not gonna cut it. we’ve had more than enough “flexible” “non-ideologues” framing the public discourse and running our lives throughout the last 70 years of western democracy. you needn’t agree with the misesian wing – there’s enough idiosyncracy possible within the framework of libertarianism (even supporting a certain amount of welfare and public health care) without having to give up on the core inalienable tenets of our idea, and abiding by them without an inch of compromise.

    • Anonymous

      “…we’ve had more than enough “flexible” “non-ideologues” framing the
      public discourse and running our lives throughout the last 70 years of
      western democracy.”

      In terms of the USA, at least, this is spectacularly wrong.  Start with FDR and the New Deal, and proceed through the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, Reagan/Friedman/Chicago, etc.

    • ” we’ve had more than enough “flexible” “non-ideologues” framing the
      public discourse and running our lives throughout the last 70 years of
      western democracy.”

      What utter nonsense. The last 70 years have been entirely dominated by ideological politics.

    • Anonymous

      I live in Europe, so maybe my view is tainted. It’s clear that every major political party in most European countries, from christian conservative to”liberal” and “socialist” parties, is basically Keynesian, socially liberal to a certain degree and advocates socialdemocratic/leftliberal policies. There have been almost NO major, significant battles of ideas between political factions for at least 40 years, only gradual disagreements.
      If you look at Ron Paul and his ideas, and how BOTH Establishment parties are horrified by and push back against him, i could make an adventurous guess that the same thing is going on in the US on a certain level.
      Fundamental disagreement is about more than just healthcare or the war in Iraq.

    • Gregory Herr

      I suspect that Will has “core” beliefs/principles that aren’t subject to compromise. I think the point made is that laws, policies, ideas,, etc. should be deemed worthy or not without regard to how they are labeled within some sort of idealogical or political spectrum.

  • bill woolsey

    How does your view different from the libertarianism of Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, or James M. Buchanan?  

    • Anonymous

      I think this shows what is wrong with  the (increasingly global) American terminlology, with the mapping

      Conservative(US) => Conservative
      Liberatrian (US) => Liberal
      Liberal (US)  => Socialist/Social Democrat

      But the mapping isn’t perferct, if W.W. lived in some European country 30 years ago, he would have clearly been a Liberal and therefore a member of the (moderate) right.  Perhaps the American terminology make sense for Americans (other an W.W. of course), but it is sad that it is spreading across the globe. 

      • There is a slight mistake in your mapping

        Neo-Nazi (US) => Hard Right / Fascist / Neo-nazi
        Neo-Conservative (US) => Nationalist / Authoritarian Right
        Social / Cultural Conservative (US) => Christian Democrat 
        Economic Conservative (US) => Conservative
        Libertarian (US) => Conservative Liberal
        Left-Libertarian (US) => Social Liberal
        Liberal (US) => Social Democrat / Socialist
        Left-Liberal (US) => Green / Pacifist / Radical
        Communist/Socialist (US) => Communist / Trotskyist (International Socialists)
        Anarchist (US) => Anarchist

        Hence the issue is that US and other countries only do recognize Neo-Nazi, Anarchist and Communist / Socialists (in the Trotskyist flavours) identifiers. The rest is like walking in a mirror palace.

        • Anonymous

          I can’t think of many continental Christian Democrats that would be willing to share a car with a Rick Santorum or Sam Brownback, let alone a ballot list or a governing coalition.  

          Also “conservative” in the European and Asian context is a a lot more than what an “economic conservative (US)” (who is this? David Brooks?) would understand.  Most “conservatives” usually hail from nationalist, traditionalist, or religious constituencies and will often diverge on economic issues.

          The mistake is thinking about politicians in terms of some sort of consistent ideology, instead of their constituency or partisan/class/ethnic/ interest, which in most systems, democratic or otherwise, is going to be more predictive of policies.  Political constituencies might have ideologies, god help them, but leaders are more concerned with giving their supporters what they want, rather than lecturing them on the correct interpretation of their world system that week. 

          There might be a lot of lecturing going on, but the target is always people who can’t vote.  Thus Brezhnev could lecture to workers, and America can lecture to Iranians.

          • If you look at what Fidesz, the Christian Democrat party in Hungary, is doing with their 2/3 majority (sufficient to rewrite and alter the Hungarian constitution), you see they implement the ideas that Santorum runs on (on marriage etc.)

            In general, someone like Santorum would probably be a mainstream CSU-politician if he had lived in Bavaria in South-Germany.

            Just keep in mind that in Bavaria, a federal state with the CSU being its political majority for many decades, in every public school a cross hangs above the classroom door.

            Europe is far more social conservative than Fox News try to make you believe. In reality, social democrats are currently part of coalition governments in only two countries (Belgium and Denmark) and even there the actual majorities in parliament are centre-right.

  • I suspect that I will be unusual among the commentators here in this respect, but I don’t find much to quibble with in the substantive points you make in your third paragraph. And I, too, could go on.

    So the issue comes down to one of labeling. You state, correctly, that the public meaning of the term libertarianism is something different than what you (and I) believe. And so you prefer to call yourself a liberal.

    I’m sympathetic to your position. I often hesitate to call myself a libertarian precisely because I don’t want people to automatically assume that I hold a bunch of positions that I don’t actually hold. It depends on who I’m speaking with. Tell a random academic philosopher that you’re a libertarian and she’ll probably assume that you’re a natural rights Lockean a la Nozick. Tell someone at a Ron Paul rally and they’ll probably make a different set of assumptions. But like you, I’m uncomfortable being put in a box.

    Still, aren’t you applying a double standard here? Sure, if you go around telling people that you’re a libertarian, they’ll probably make some false assumptions about your beliefs. But isn’t the same thing true about the label “liberal”? 

    In fact, I suspect the “liberal” label would cause *more* confusion. I suppose this is testable, no? Take your beliefs on a number of different philosophical and policy issues: the value of economic liberty, whether capitalism is exploitative, the drug war, open borders, health care, social security, medicare, etc. Then compare your actual beliefs with what a random sample of people think a “libertarian” believes about those things with what they think a “liberal” believes about those things. Is there really any doubt?

    Now “classical liberal” I could go with.

  • rjvg50

    The only two political blogs that don’t raise my blood pressure or cause me to spray coffee on my screen each morning are BHL and Frum. Keep up the sane response to teh crazy.

  • Anonymous

    When you have at your disposal some new or interesting argument against what you regard as one of the standard libertarian philosophical positions, please return and share it with us. In the meantime the “this is what I happen to believe”  (and I’m so smart) riff doesn’t interest me much…sorry

    • hi mark, you request an argument *against* orthodox libertarian views? but i wonder why anyone should bother with that. instead, how about we build arguments straight up across level ground and see which (free market) structure looks most attractive?

      • Anonymous

        Hi John,
        That would be A-OK with me. And, in fact, I have tried to do my bit. See my Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense (Continuum, 2011). Check it out!

  • I am afraid that the type of individualistic, non-labeling advocated here, though useful in philosophical circles, will impede any kind of political movement.

    I think libertarian-ish people suffer from the same kind of over-individualism that my hipster friends do: Appreciating things only because they are not popular.  In other words, as soon as other people come to share similar views, the hipster libertarian must find some way to differentiate himself.  Perhaps it is because libertarians are so used to being alone that they do not understand what it means to form coalitions.

    Whatever the reasons for it, hipster libertarianism is detrimental to any kind of political movement. Successful political movements will require a big-tent approach.  Yes, there are crazies like Ron Paul in your libertarian circles.  Admit it and move on.  What those of us who are fans of liberty DO NOT need is another Koch v. Rockwell spat.  Younger libertarians tend to much more immune to this infighting (mostly because they still think being “libertarian” is, in and of itself, different and cool).  Once they become older and more entrenched in the movement, the hipsters among them begin forming clique upon clique.

    I don’t think the economic freedom liberal and the economic freedom conservative should fight just because one is a liberal and the other a conservative.  Insofar as political movements go, this kind of hipster individualism needs to be stopped if libertarians, like Gary Johnson or Ron Paul, are going to win any kind of election.

    • Abandon all individualism to enter our grand future of individual liberty! To be more precise, follow my standard, for it covers you from the rain more than any other you might carry in your own hand.

    • Anonymous

      Joshua House: I am afraid that the type of individualistic non-labeling advocated
      here, though useful in philosophical circles, will impede any kind of
      political movement. . . .  Whatever the reasons for it, hipster libertarianism is detrimental to
      any kind of political movement. Successful political movements will
      require a big-tent approach. . . . Insofar as political movements go, this kind of hipster individualism
      needs to be stopped if libertarians, like Gary Johnson or Ron Paul, are
      going to win any kind of election.

      O.K. So then maybe we won’t have a “political movement.” And maybe Gary Johnson or Ron Paul might not win any elections, either. Maybe we will just have philosophical circles. Is this a big loss? If it seems like one, then that may have something to do with the theory you hold about how people ought to talk and interact with each other. I am pretty much fine with saying that if the cost of a movement or a party is oversimplifying, lumping, papering over real differences or swallowing our debates in the name of political expediency, then that movement or that party sucks, and necessarily has very little to do with the sort of society that I should like to live in — because the sort of society I should like to live in is one which, inter alia, supremely values honest debate, serious inquiry, intellectual experimentation, individuality and principled and creative dissent over conformity, political palavering and partisan rhetoric. I am not sure that that really need be the cost of a movement, but if it isn’t, then they can pretty well cope with some idiosyncrasies and philosophical debates about self-labeling or the lack thereof, even if it complicates the “messaging” or some similarly cheap bit of psychosocial manipulation.

      I agree with almost none of the stances that Will takes in the above post (aside from being at least as hesitant as he is to see my views conflated with Ron Paul’s). But if the argument against those stances is supposed to be that he ought to get over his qualms and take one for the party if “we” are ever going to win elections, then slap me silly and call me “liberaltarian.” I sure didn’t sign on to this gig in order to make it easier for Republican politicians to win elections.

  • I, like Matt, think that the “liberal” label leaves far more to be desired than the “libertarian” one.

    If you look at what that word has come to mean over the last 50 years, it is synonymous with all manner of policies and ideas that are intrinsically illiberal. As many people around here surely know, the “liberal” moniker was a re-branding of intellectual traditions that came out of turn-of-the-century socialist progressivism after it had tarnished itself beyond repair.

    Amusingly enough, then liberals tarnished the “liberal” name and reverted to “progressive”, but at the end of the day the connotation remains the same: unabashed support for an immense amount of centralized state power over people’s lives. 

    Particularly when Will says: “Standard academic liberals badly understate the importance of economic freedom to freedom more generally”, this in itself is one of the greatest understatements of all time.

    Standard academic liberals qua Paul Krugman and the like, frequently reject the idea that economic freedom, so called, is important at all. Yet economic freedom is – in reality – not separate at all from what it means to be free people otherwise. The material needs to support human life and particularly to raise human standards of living cannot be achieved in isolation and trade is the sole means by which most all the things that modern liberals profess to care about can actually be achieved.

    If you want “universal” health care, somebody has to produce the goods and perform the services necessary in order to provide quality care to other people who do not have the highly specialized skills needed themselves. It’s like anything else… I don’t know how to make a car, but I drive one. I don’t know how to make a computer, but I use one. I don’t know how to treat cancer, but if I ever contracted such an illness I would need people who did know how to do that. And I’d need all their tools, their facilities, medicines, networks and supply chains as well. This is not inconsequential as so many liberals seem to believe. There is no magic process by which writing a law that dictates “universal health care” actually produces the intended result. Indeed, it is quite the opposite.

    There are only two way for me to get what others produce. 1) Trade. 2) Violence.

    Academic liberals as a general rule tend to support violence, while restricting voluntary trade among individuals directly through supporting various stages of a command economy, or through denying the concept of private property rights which are truly essential to trade.

    That – to me – is the very essence of the word “liberal” as it has been used in my life time. 

    I don’t much care for labels in any case, but I’m proud to call myself a libertarian in most situations precisely because the alternatives are hideous abominations. I will not, as Will suggests, be calling myself a “liberal” any time soon… at least not until the term has been sufficiently reclaimed such that it might apply to Frederic Bastiat or James Madison again.

    • Damien S.

      James Madison?

      In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of
      interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of
      them. The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a
      political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary
      opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an
      immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By
      the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of
      property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise
      extreme indigence towards a state of comfort. 4. By abstaining from
      measures which operate differently on different interests, and
      particularly such as favor one interest at the expence of another. 5. By
      making one party a check on the other, so far as the existence of
      parties cannot be prevented, nor their views accommodated. If this is
      not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism.

      James Madison, Parties 23 Jan. 1792 Papers 14:197–98 (emphasis mine)

      I’d like to see you provide evidence for the idea that Paul Krugman, a professional and in all fairlyc onventional economists, doesn’t think that economic freedom is important at all.  Or that the literally dozens of universal health care systems in the world don’t work.

      • 1. I am honestly not sure at all what that Madison excerpt has to do with my point. Madison was one of many figures who would have been considered liberal and on the “left” (in the French parliamentary sense) in his time. What this has to do with practical politics and the necessity (or not) of political parties seems to me to be another matter entirely.

        2. Paul Krugman the polemicist is not a “fairly conventional economist”, by the way… and I selected him in part because he writes under the banner “The Conscience of a Liberal”. If you look at the overwhelming thrust of his proposals, they are securely en route to a command economy – at least in numerous areas. If you read Krugman’s views on trade-theory from a decade ago, it’s not often all that bad, but if you look at his articles in the last 8-10 years… they are filled with, as I said, “unabashed support for an immense amount of centralized state power over people’s lives. ”

        3. As for the universal health care systems in the world not working, that – too – is no response to any point, which is that so-called “universal” systems necessarily rely on coercion and force to operate, not that they cannot – for a time at least – “work”. 
        That said, such systems certainly don’t work in the long-term because the incentives are disastrously skewed towards punishing producers and subsidizing consumption which fairly quickly results in shortages and the drying up of the actual resources needed to make the system operate… Thus waiting lines, physician exoduses and the reality that in most of Europe everyone has private health insurance in addition to the “universal” system. But doesn’t this really seem like an argument for another time and on another thread?

        • Damien S.

          You were the one who brought up “reclaiming” ‘liberal’ so that it could apply to Madison again, implying that it does not apply to Madison now.  The quotation shows Madison had an interest in economic equality, fear of excessive in equality, and in gradual wealth redistribution, all consistent with modern liberalism.

          “securely en route to a command economy” — well, that’s an interesting interpretation.  As is “certainly don’t work”.

          • Anonymous

            I think your interepretation of Madison’s views about “economic equality” and redistribution are based on these two points. Note my emphasis:

            2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.

            Back in the 18th century and earlier England conferred unjust monopolies on the rich and powerful and adopted trade policies also for the benefit of vested interests. One of the great themes of classical liberalism was to decry these unjust “opportunities” for the powerful. I believe that Madison reasonably thought that by removing these “Robin Hood in reverse” policies we would achieve great equality without forced government redistribution. In short, there is nothing in what you quoted that is at all inconsistent with classical liberalism and even libertarianism.

          • A. You’re grossly overstating Madison’s views on wealth redistribution and grossly understating/omitting his support for private property and Lockean natural rights to life, liberty & property. “Concern” for excessive economic inequality is shared by many classical liberals & libertarians, and is a motivation to care about other people… NOT a conclusion about how government should be used – if at all – to address that kind of a problem.

            This is a mistaken logical leap that you may be taking in assuming that a person’s motivations necessarily lead him to the same conclusions as the ones you’ve acquired. That – I feel – is seminal to the point of this blog, actually.

            For a very long time many “liberals” have claimed monopoly on being concerned about social inequalities, in spite of the reality that they are not the only ones who think or care about these kinds of issues and never have been.

            B. I’m not sure what more to tell you here about the economics, the logic or the history… but “certainly don’t work in the long-term” is quite accurate when talking about the failures of command economies, socialism, wealth-redistribution and central planning. If that were not the case, Greece – not to mention, the US – would be seeing exponential growth in prosperity right now.Like I said before, prosperity isn’t generated by law and it’s certainly not generated by magic. The material standards of living people have become accustomed to in the US and elsewhere are not the result of redistribution, heavily progressive taxation or government planning and subsidization. In short, it is not through force and violence that people grow richer. Wealth is the result of free people trading with each other. But in any case, the snarky responses aren’t all that substantive and I have other things I need to get to today.

  • I agree with most of your substantive views here.  I happen to still prefer “liberaltarian” (your coinage, I believe, along with Rawlsekian) to BHL as a label.  But the conversations that Matt started by creating this blog seem to me to be worth having *some* label, some umbrella concept.  

    I agree with Matt: there’s no good reason to only let “libertarian” denote a point-precise philosophical-political position when other ideological words– “liberal,” “conservative,” “socialist,” “social democratic,” “communitarian,” etc– are all understood to denote a broad range of positions and justifications.

    That said, once the current wave of Ron Paul-related blogging has passed, I expect to go back to not talking *about* “libertarianism” very much.  Better for the most part to just talk about particular ideas, issues, and arguments.

  • Damien S.

    As someone who moved from anarcho-capitalism through “liberal/libertarian” to social democracy flirting with 19th century left-libertarianism, I’m strongly sympathetic.  Consideration of some of the comments leads me to realize that your post is somewhat underspecified, though; what exactly does your “high level of economic freedom” commit you to?  Those indices like low taxes, you view taxes as necessary and legitimate, where do you meet?

    Krugman, like most economists, is against rent control or arbitrary tariffs, but is straight liberal not libertarian; do you disagree with him on much that’s substantive?  Does your “high economic freedom” lead you to be habitually skeptical of externalities arguments?  Are youd disagreeing with liberal economists, or with lay liberals who yes often don’t properly appreciate markets?

    “Libertarian” and “conservatives” are often defined loosely as wanting the smallest government necessary, but I view that as one of those empty phrases.  Liberals, after all, don’t seek out big government for the sake of it; we just view a lot more as useful and necessary.  One could technically be a libertarian who wasn’t prone to skepticism about global warming or economic instabilities, but like you (I think) I eventually decided that the practical difference such acceptance made meant  libertarian was not a communicatively useful label any more.

  • Jesse Walker

    This is what happens when you’re no longer able to attend Beltway cocktail parties.

    • No, that’s why he gave up “cosmotarian.”  

  • JH

    I disagree. We should stick to the label libertarian. If you believe that the economic liberties are as important as other liberties and deserve constitutional protection, you are not what most people would call a “liberal.” Most liberals do not believe that the economic liberties are basic liberties that deserve protection on par with other liberties, such as the civil liberties. In academic debates, we might opt for “neo-classical liberal” or “classical liberal”to distinguish between natural rights Nozickean libertarianism and the new John Tomasi/Will Wilkinson/Matt Zwolinski-esque view. That’s all fine and good. But, in popular discourse, people with Will Wilkinson’s views are obviously libertarians.

  • Joshua Herring

    Glad this cat’s out of the bag.  I agree that Wilkinson’s talents are better spent reminding liberals that economic freedom matters too than trying to get libertarians to accept the welfare state.  I wish him the best of luck.

    • Anonymous

      But many libertarians — or at least thinkers that libertarians claim to admire (Friedman, Hayek) — accept the welfare state in some forms (e.g. negative income tax).   

  • Anonymous

    I am hoping W.W. could elaborate on “Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free.”  I would like to hear him (or anyone) give examples. [EDIT: this is not a rhetorical question, I genuinely don’t think I know whether the the proposition is true or false.]

    • Anonymous

      Can’t speak for W.W., but I think the liberal view toward which he’s pointing in that sentence (and throughout this post) goes something like this: Freedom is the ability to achieve one’s goals, and to be relatively unhindered in doing this. Various kinds of hindrances are possible besides government-sponsored coercion. These include poverty, insecurity, rigid class systems, lack of education or access to it, oppressive bosses and workplaces, cultural traditions and hierarchies that disvalue or oppress certain groups (minorities, women, gays), and so forth. 

      Broadly speaking, liberals believe that a polity can act collectively to fight and, to some degree, remove those hindrances. Its agency for doing this is called “the government.” When the government acts to secure minority rights, to lessen certain kinds of insecurity (that you’ll be denied health care, that your bank will lose all your money, that you’ll have nothing to live on in retirement, etc.), to expand access to education, to require safety protections in the workplace and protect your right to organize with others in defense of your interests there — in these and other cases, public / government/ collective exercises of power are felt as gains for freedom in the actual lives of most people. 

      This is why liberalism in the modern sense has a huge consistuency in Western societies and libertarianism doesn’t. Most people don’t care whether the felt improvement in their lives comes from a public authority, or from private enterprise and the “free market.” They might be aware that, say, laws that restrict smoking in public places didn’t exist a generation ago, that laws that force bigoted business owners to serve people of all races didn’t exist two generations ago, and that the coercive government system that provides a basic income in retirement didn’t exist three or four generations ago. But they like not having to breathe other people’s cigarette smoke, they like not living under conditions of racial apartheid, and they like knowing they’ll have that basic income when they can no longer work. These things are experienced as freedom, and compared to this, the libertarian objections to them seem puzzlingly abstract, the sharp “government” / “free market” distinction pedantic.

      • Anonymous

        In exchange for a pittance and breathing smoke free air in a restaurant that is forced to serve you; you  are willing to accept mass murder overseas, mass economic rape at home, and the complete destruction of all limits to governing authority? 

        Oh, I know. You will say ‘But I believe in free speech, due process and peace.’    But now you will be just like Will Wilkinson, so full of status quo confidence that mere unsupported declarations are deemed enough to win an argument. 

        If you learn one thing– make it that the following issues are fostered and institutionalized by the State.  What can you expect from people that hold power to do things that ordinary citizens would be imprisoned and/or lethally injected for?

        “These include poverty, insecurity, rigid class systems, lack of education or access to it, oppressive bosses and workplaces, cultural traditions and hierarchies that disvalue or oppress certain groups (minorities, women, gays), and so forth.” 

        • Anonymous

          3catuna, again, as best I can articulate the liberal view, I would say that liberals generally see a sentence like the one that makes up your first paragraph as a non-sequiter.  Some coercion, for some purposes, doesn’t imply total coercion for all purposes. Or, turning that around: Liberals would say that in any community of people, someone is always going to have access to lethal force, and the ability to use it either against other members of that community or against other communities.  Someone will always have the power to coerce others. In the absence of an agency like the modern state, that someone will be the clan chief, the mafia don, the lord of the manor, or some other such nominally “private” actor. Over the course of the last few hundred years, modern Western states managed to override these agencies with governments that are to at least some degree accountable to the community as a whole through competitive elections, and that are at least somewhat constrained in when and how they exercise force thanks to mechanisms like separated powers, independent judiciaries and bills of rights. It’s not perfect, but we already experimented for thousands of years with arrangements that left lethal power in the hands of non-state actors, and those were all worse. Ultimately, for most people, they were less free.

          Also, liberals would say that gains for freedom are hardly a “pittance.” Being free of secondhand smoke is obviously a small example (but adrian had asked for examples, and that one is clear and concrete). There are much larger ones, especially as seen from the point of view of the historically oppressed. If you’re disabled, for instance, the accommodations that the ADA coerced the managers of public places into providing are no small thing. If you’re African-American, you live in a completely different world than your grandparents did before the days of the Civil Rights Acts, when private landlords could legally refuse to rent to you and private employers were “free” to refuse to consider your application. Their freedom was your unfreedom, and it wasn’t “fostered and institutionalized by the State” except insofar as the State let it happen by refusing to defend you and your rights.

          • Anonymous

            Since when would it be your right to force someone to rent to you?  Who becomes the oppressor then?  You want your cake and to eat it too. It would not be you exercising a right, but the state. Of course the Civil Rights movement has much to celebrate in it. But to go from eliminating one structure of oppression to replacing it with even more concentrated state power– even if for the moment it seems a benign changing of who benefits from state enforced privilege — is a bloody dangerous thing. I am not sure you see the whole picture. Have African-Americans benefitted from unions and minimum wage laws?   

          • Anonymous

            “Since when would it be your right to force someone to rent to you?” Since about 1964. I’m not sure what you think the Civil Rights movement has to celebrate if you consider it “oppression” to use government power against racial exclusion, because that’s what the movement was largely about. In that great debate, libertarians made their arguments, and they lost. 

            And here’s what I tell them in hopes of making them feel better: As a libertarian, you want property owners to have the right to decide what happens on their property, right? And you have no problem with individuals or corporate groups controlling lots of resources, so you wouldn’t arbitrarily limit the amount of land that someone could own, right? Well, then there’s no reason you should object if a group called “the people of America,” which incorporated in 1789 under corporate bylaws known as “the Constitution” and set up a steering committee called “the U.S. government,” and then over time acquired land holdings of about 2,425,600,000 acres, has corporately decided (over the course of several shareholders’ meetings and board elections) that it won’t allow racially exclusive businesses to operate on its territory. That’s just property owners excercising their God-given property rights, isn’t it?

          • Anonymous

            You revel in the political means. “In that great debate, libertarians made their arguments, and they lost.”  So justice and order is based on violence first?  For you can’t imply that the argument was won based on persuasion or substance.   

            What is more hateful, racism or statism? 

            Yes, the USA is very much “incorporated” now. But back at the forming the several states maintained a “right” to get out of the pact. Wonder why that was? 
            I didn’t sign any contract with the USA– Again, why should anybody be forced to legitimize a myth?

            You fear a return to a local manorial system of some sort. Recognize the USA a giant conglomerated manor.  A modern tax, debt, inflation, farm.

            To be more precise– try the thought experiment of comparing localistic political corporations that are suddenly infused and confronted with the free market idea v. localistic political corporations that are not….   

          • Anonymous

            Q: So justice and order is based on violence first? For you can’t imply that the argument was won based on persuasion or substance.  

            A: I can and I do.

            Q: What is more hateful, racism or statism?  

            A: Racism.

            Q: But back at the forming the several states maintained a “right” to get out of the pact.

            A: Like Lincoln, I don’t think they did. But anyway, I would think you find this immaterial. You don’t like statism, and the states are states, right? They rely on force and violence to back up their laws just as much as the federal government does.

            Q: I didn’t sign any contract with the USA…..

            A: Then why are you still here? You accept an implied contract by not leaving.

            Q: Recognize the USA [is a] giant conglomerated manor. A modern tax, debt, inflation, farm.

            A: So how does it violate libertarian principles, then? You have no objections to farms, right? Even big farms? And the owners of the farm should have the power to decide what happens on it, right? Well, who owns Farm USA?

          • Anonymous

            You are right. I, like the chattels before me, deserve slavery. After all, it is and was an implied contract.

          • Anonymous

            There are things I don’t like about life in the US too, but comparing it to “slavery” just guarantees libertarians the kind of irrelevance that W.W. is talking about in the original post here. It puts you outside the conversations that have a chance of actually making a difference. 

          • Anonymous

            It is a matter of degree, not kind. But more importantly, it is the logic that exposes the problems in your way of thinking. You would rather be dismissive than deal with it. Well, enjoy your status quo while it lasts.

          • If people accept an implied contract by not leaving, then black people effectively chose to emigrate to the U.S. by not leaving once they were free to do so.

          • Anonymous

            I agree. Who’s arguing otherwise?

          • Anonymous

            Well. I’ll argue otherwise. Personally, I’m of the opinion that if your theory of political legitimacy
            leads you to the thought, “Well, if the blacks don’t like it why don’t
            they go back to Africa?” then your theory of political legitimacy kind
            of sucks. And certainly hasn’t got much to do with what anyone would
            recognize as meaningful consent  in any non-political relationship.

          • Anonymous

            I said nothing about going to Africa. I was agreeing with the statement that people who choose not to leave are choosing to stay. That’s just true by definition; it has nothing to do with race or color.

          • Anonymous

            The concern is not about the definition of “choosing to stay,” for some possible valence of the term “choosing.” The concern is about the attempt to read consent to “an implied contract” off of the choice. If your theory of implicit consent leads to the conclusion that African Americans consented to the authority of the U.S. government simply in virtue of not emigrating after the abolition of slavery (why should they have to? where should they go? nevermind the costs involved, the fact that those costs were imposed by centuries of inhuman violence and coercion, etc.)  — well, then I take that as a decisive reductio of your theory of implicit consent. The standards you are using for inferring consent are not good standards, since they lead you to find “consent” in circumstances that have nothing to do with consent, and everything to do with a history of massive unrelenting coercion.

          • “Sucks”– what a sophisticated argument.  I’m not certain exactly what you mean by a theory of political legitimacy, but I do think if you can leave but choose not to then you have a hard time credibly claiming people should pity you.  Millions of Africans would kill to trade places with American black people.  Or in your case, yes, you sign a contract with the U.S. by not leaving it.

          • Anonymous

            So the Dec of Ind was just a bunch of nonsense? There is no right to alter/abolish a government?

          • Anonymous

            Jefferson Smith: “You have no objections to farms, right? Even big farms? . . . Well, who owns Farm USA?”


            Rightful ownership is based on honest labor or consensual transfer from a prior rightful owner. Not on feudal privilege, arbitrary claim, violent conquest, or transfer from a prior conqueror. But the U.S. government’s claims to authority over the territory within its borders are derived entirely from the latter, not from the former.

            This should not be surprising: while libertarians usually accept no de jure restraints on the size of landholdings or the accumulation of resources, there are natural and social pressures which will tend to impose some de facto limits. It’s pretty hard to amass an empire the size of a fricking continent if you can only amass what you’ve earned by your own labor and by the consensual cooperation of others. If on the other hand the liberal response to radical libertarianism is that you could model our political obligations by reconsidering us all as perpetual tenants of the biggest, nastiest landlord in the history of the earth — a landlord with accumulated holdings spanning the globe, with trillions of dollars in resources, millions of hired enforcers and a nuclear arsenal — with the consolation is that each of us tenants has a fraction of a fraction of a share in the ownership of the landlord’s holding company, and every four years or so the tenant can always put this less-than-a-millionth vote towards an attempt to constrain the landlord’s worst excesses over the next four years — then I have to wonder who here is defending a doctrine of social and economic inequality.

          • Anonymous

            The point about farms was a bit of Socratic questioning, meant to expose the incoherence of the radical libertarian position. The actual liberal response to that position is to treat it as the ahistorical fantasy that it is. Where has there ever been a society of any size or complexity that arose without any acts of force or conquest? Libertarians are just wrong to fetishize government — it is sometimes an agent of oppression, but sometimes a means for liberating people from oppression by “local bullies” ( Political legitimacy comes from democratizing it, not wishing it out of existence.

          • Anonymous

            Jefferson Smith: “The point about farms was a bit of Socratic questioning . . .”

            That’s fine, but Socratic questioning, in order to be effective, needs to start from a view that the interlocutor has expressed, not a view that you’ve attributed to them without their consent. Radical libertarians do not just hold the theory that whoever has, should keep, no matter how they came to have what they have. They have a particular account of where rightful claims of ownership come from. And if you choose to disregard that theory in favor of the ahistorical fantasy that the conquest of the Americas somehow resembled libertarian accounts of just acquisition, then whatever you’re interrogating, it’s not the actual libertarian position.

            Jefferson Smith: “Where has there ever been a society of any size or complexity that arose without any acts of force or conquest?”

            Well, I wouldn’t know, but (1) I didn’t say anything about justifying “a society,” either small or large (*); I said something about justifying particular claims of land ownership.  Now, it’s certainly true that given my stated standards (honest labor or consensual transfer, not conquest or arbitrary claim) a great deal, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of all the land claims in every known society are illegitimate claims rather than legitimate ones. But so what? To point out that a radical doctrine has radical conclusions is not exactly an argument against it, and to say that things ought to be different from the way they are is not in and of itself to indulge in an “ahistorical fantasy.”

            In any case, (2) the fact there are no societies of any size or complexity without murder and rape, is not to prove that we ought simply to accept murder and rape as being just as good a basis for social or sexual life as their opposites as are peace or mutual consent. Perhaps these things are inescapable, but if they are, they are inescapable evils, and the fact that they exist as a social reality is no reason at all against advancing theories of human rights which condemn them unequivocally.

            (* I don’t actually think that “a society” is the sort of thing that calls for justification . . .)

          • Anonymous

            Read back up the thread. I was responding to 3catuna’s remark, “I didn’t sign any contract with the USA.” Granted, Socratic questioning is hard to do properly in a non-real-time forum like this, but I took him/her to be articulating a view that I have indeed heard from other libertarians over the years. It’s an ahistorical fantasy to suggest that we can start history over on some voluntary basis without regard to a huge legacy of past claims and power relationships; or that any society will be entirely free of coercion; or that “the consent of the governed” means millions of people signing contracts, as opposed to tacitly submitting to the authority that governs the terroritory they choose not to leave. Like Wilkinson in the original post, I think those are interesting premises for a college-dorm bull session but irrelevant to any actual politics, which instead must focus, as you aptly put it, on recognizing social realities while fighting evils in light of theories of human rights. In reality, we can’t just wish away all official coercion, but must fight — as the Civil Rights movement did — to put  liberal checks and safeguards around it and to keep our means in line with our ends.

          • Anonymous
          • Anonymous

            Well, I’m not here to defend Ron Paul’s political platform, or the views of Rand, Nozick, or Hayek.

            I’m inclined to agree that there are some serious structural reasons why libertarian minarchism is so prone to fetishize state power over every other form of bullying power, and why it is prone to neglect the need for public, democratic responses to entrenched prejudice, corporate power, social and economic forms of domination, etc. To the extent that this is true, I think that’s something that sucks about libertarian minarchism. But I am not a minarchist. (And if the author thinks that that’s the only kind of American libertarian that there is — or that American libertarianism was, say, founded by “Nozick et al.” (!) — then I can only gently suggest that they are writing outside of their area of expertise.)

            I am an anarchist, and as such I have a fundamentally different picture of what the public is and how it relates to the state. My problem with both conventional minarchism and post-classical liberalism is their shared premise that a public or democratic response necessarily means the use of legal force by a democratically-governed state. Conventional minarchists take this as a reason to narrow public action to the tiny number of circumstances in which they consider the use of legal force acceptable. Post-classical liberals take it as a reason to broaden the sphere of legal force to any circumstance where public action is called for. I take it as a reason to reject the underlying authoritarian theory of politics in favor of a more supple conception, which allows  for the importance of public action through grassroots organizing and radical, non-state social movements.

            Whether or not this view is representative of “American libertarian” depends of course on the American libertarian that you ask. Of course there are many people who call themselves libertarians who are quite committed to a relatively conservative, minarchistic view. But there are many others who are not. And I would argue that there is nothing in the core commitments of libertarian politics which would require them to be so. (In fact I would argue that the minarchists are engaged in a fundamental inconsistency, and that the most consistent libertarians must be both anarchists and anti-authoritarians of a very broad and militant sort.)

            Hope this helps.

          • Damien S.

            ” Since when would it be your right to force someone to rent to you?”

            Since a subset of the population decided they could own the Earth in exclusion to another subset of the population, charging them rent for the service of not pushing them into the ocean for ‘trespass’.

            “Who becomes the oppressor then?”

            The landlords.

            Lockean proviso, remember?  Individuals can sequester land if enough and as good is left over for others.

  • Will:

    The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights.

    From my interpretation there are libertarians, a couple of whom occassionally post here, for which this part isn’t far-fetched at all. Their response to said arrangements though is to question their legitimacy due to the force hidden behind them.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps some of you would like to hear what someone on the outside looking in has to say?

    As a former republican in my younger days when I was self centered, then a democrat as I became more inclusive and liberal. Of lately I have discovered libertarianism. I am attracted to it because both democratic and republican parties are pro global empire, and anti civil liberties, and big government. It seems to me that the two parties are just two sides of the same coin. 
    I am particularly attracted to bleeding heart libertarianism in that it seems to allow for an inclusive we society in which we care and help our fellow less fortunete human beings.

    I am hesitant to ascribe a label to myself, as it seems to often imply an extremism. There are many points that I find in common with libertarianism (more so than the pro war, anti civil liberties of the two party system), and yet I have difficulties with the extremes (such as zero government). I don’t believe in a totally free market without government to step in and protect the citizens when soci0pathic people or their corporations cause harm. I am a small business owner, and yet I am not anti union. I also believe in the need for public education, yet I do not believe that throwing more money at the system will fix it.  It seems to me that life is grey, rather than the extremes of black or white. 

    And so I choose to focus on what we have in common, rather than our differences. I am very grateful for; it feels like a safe port in the political storm.

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  • Anonymous

    I agree with Wilkinson: I would rather see people in the BHL orbit using their energy to convince liberals to recognize the freedom-enhancing effects of sweatshops than convincing libertarians that taxation is not actually theft. From that perspective “BHL”, the label, is a problem.

  • Anonymous

    I respect Will Wilkinson.  I probably also agree with him that Ron Paul probably knew about the strategy being used by his cohorts to appeal to “redneck” Americans to advance their paleo-libertarian ideas.  He now says he doesn’t want to be part of a movement that includes Ron Paul.  How convenient for him to state that he is somehow a different breed of libertarian so that he can absolve himself of the Ron Paul “taint.” 

    But, one could ask Wilkinson if we would even be at this point in the discussion if it weren’t for Ron Paul.  Would people like him even have this much influence if it weren’t for Ron Paul embodying the obscure  libertarian economic theories and giving them a place on the map?

    • Anonymous

      Shorter Tyche: “I don’t know anything about libertarianism or Will Wilkinson, but please defend yourselves against my vague impressions of both”

      • Anonymous

        One can have “vague impressions” of someone and still not like what they’re trying to do.  As for libertarianism, I never claimed to be a libertarian or to be an expert on the subject. 

  • Thomas Webb

    In a sense this post is about semantics and message (though maybe this whole blog is, too?) One could hold all of WW’s views and call himself or herself a libertarian. Or not. I’ve gone through the opposite transition as WW. I used to call myself a liberal. My views didn’t change much, but I found “liberals” too often disagreed with me too much on economic issues and even went so far as to label me a libertarian without my consent. I just found it easier to call myself a libertarian and enumerate where I differ from other libertarians than do the same with respect to liberals.

    But maybe WW’s tact is the right one – maybe we should change what liberalism means. Maybe the Democratic party needs their own Ron Paul. I sometimes say that liberalism and progressivism are different things and that I’m a liberal but not a progressive. Other liberals are a strange mixture of both.

    • Laurence Kramer

      The Democratic party has its own Ron Paul: Dennis Kucinich (at least on the pro-civil liberties, anti-imperialist axis).

      • Anonymous

        Ron Paul is having a lot more impact on the Republican Party than Dennis Kucinich is having on the Democratic Party.

        • Has Kucinich ever been locked out of his own party’s convention? Just because Ron Paul supporters are working within the confines of the GOP, doesn’t mean he is having any substantive effect on the platform of the party.  Kucinich’s views are in line with the liberal ideals that have represented the Democratic Party for 70 years; even if he is usually towards the fringes.  

          Meanwhile Paul may appear to being making more of an impact, but only because the rejection of his views by mainstream Conservative is so violent. Looking at the goals of those that currently constitute the GOP base, there is no reason to believe they will ever accept libertarianism since it is often diametrically opposed to what they believe in.  If Paul ever has a significant impact on the policies of the GOP, it will likely be at the cost of significant amounts of their current base.

          • Anonymous

            Actually, Ron Paul is having an impact because many people are rejecting both parties right now.  His candidacy is revealing hypocrisies within both parties.  That is SO important.  It’s like he’s squeezing a pimple, for want of a better analogy.

            That’s why I am willing to overlook some of the unsavory things done in his name in the past.  What he did was not necessarily unique in politics.  What Obama did in Chicago to get ahead politically by sitting in Rev. Wright’s church for 20 years and befriending William Ayers was done in order to advance his political career.  What Ron Paul did with the newsletters was done to advance political ideas.  In that way, I don’t see it as a selfish thing, even though he did profit from it. 

            And, I think Ron Paul has evolved.  He talks of a transition period in the elimination of the programs he wants to get rid of.  He realizes the changes he seeks to make will be painful, and he wants to cushion that pain.

            I am defending Ron Paul strenuously right now because I see what he’s doing as so important.  Call me naive or unsophisticated, but to me, he is a valiant hero.

    • Anonymous


      Your story sounds much like mine. Though I don’t call myself a libertarian, my liberal friends have practically disowned me because I said I found more in common with the Libertarian party when it comes to empire and my civil rights. Though I support gay rights, it did not make up for the Democratic Party’s pro war, anti civil rights position.I agree with that the two party system is just a dog & pony show, and with Clay Jenkinson of the; the Democrats & Republicans are Hamiltonian big government parties.

  • Andrew Cohen

    Well said Will!  Glad to have you post here and for this to be your first with us.  I mostly agree with what you say, though I agree with Matt and Jacob that taking the label “liberal” is no better than “libertarian.”  I prefer the latter and don’t care that others misunderstand what it means.  The “BH” qualifier helps, in my view–if only because it gets people asking what the view really is.  Good discussion can and often does follow and I have to say, may actually make a difference.  “Inscrutably idiosyncratic” is good!

  • Jesse Walker

    More seriously: It’s interesting that conservatives who are 80% libertarian are much less prone to declaring their independence from liberdom this way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a post from someone on the right explaining that he’d rather be inside the conservative movement making the case for drug legalization than off with the libertarians arguing about the proper use of military force (or vice versa, or whatever). 

    As for the Ron Paul stuff: Without getting into the weeds of that particular debate, I’ll just say that I won’t be surprised if a comment appears here listing some of the unappealing people the liberal movement “includes in even a conflicted way.” If you’re going to reject a political label based on your distaste for some of the people who share it, you’re probably best off dumping all the existing brands and sticking with Inscrutable Idiosyncratarian.

    • Jesse, The mistake you’re making is thinking I’m saying something about what “movement” I’d like to be part of now that I don’t care to be part of the libertarian one. I don’t want to be part of a movement at all. 

      • Except, Will, you’re explicitly rejecting the “libertarian” label and explicitly embracing the “liberal” label.  If you say you don’t want to be part of the libertarian movement because of baggage it carries or because of points of disagreement, fine, but as Jesse points out, the same arguments should apply to accepting the term “liberal,” whether or not it’s a label or a movement.  After all, despite what you may want “liberal” to mean, at this time it “publicly connote[s] a certain syndrome of convictions” that you also don’t entirely agree with either.

        I’m not sure I understand your reasoning in embracing one label or term but not the other. It’s all very fine when you’re writing for The Economist, due to the somewhat different connotations of the word there, but when talking with or writing for Americans, you’re assuming another set of public connotations if you accept “liberal.”

        • I think the difference is I actually have been an active part of the libertarian movement–worked for several “movement” institutions. Giving up the label seems like giving up the movement. But I’ve never been part of something called the liberal movement, don’t know what it looks like, and don’t see self-identifying as a liberal as implying that I’ve joined anything. Shorter, being part of a movement implies accepting a label. But accepting a label doesn’t imply joining a movement. There are lots of people who think of themselves as libertarian who have never had any contact whatsoever with the libertarian movement, and no interest in it. If I’m a liberal, that’s the kind of liberal I am.  But you’re right, it’s confusing to call myself liberal, too. I’ll just think of myself that way and call myself inscrutably idiosyncratic.   

          • I don’t see your distinction between deeds and words when in comes to their implications for what ideas you hold.  Most people are never actively part of the  movement whose label they accept; does that mean they’re lesser as members of that group?

      • Jesse Walker

        You wrote: “I’d rather not be affiliated with a ‘movement’ that includes him in even a conflicted way.” If you’d rather not be affiliated with any movement at all, that’s fine, but in that case whether or not Ron Paul is a libertarian doesn’t seem relevant to whether you are a “liberal,” a “libertarian,” or something else in a philosophical, non-movementy way.

        • Jesse, You’re probably right. I see I’m blurring together a number of things in this post. One of them has to do with how to use ideological labels as a general matter. One has to do with how I want to conceive of my ideological identity. Another has to do with my disaffection with Ron Paul and the broader libertarian movement. I don’t know that it all hangs together logically. At bottom I’m trying to say something about my self-conception, and it is something like this: I don’t like to think of myself, or to be thought of, as a libertarian, because I feel it’s been stifling my intellectual and creative development, and I truly don’t see most libertarians as people I have a lot in common with philosophically. But I guess it seems vain and self-indulgent to talk about yourself this way in a guest post, so I mixed the vainly and self-indulgently autobiographical with the general. I’l probably write another post on my blog.  

          • A C

            “I truly don’t see most libertarians as people I have a lot in common with philosophically.” Perhaps you have a narrow view of libertarianism? They are not mostly paleoconservatives in disguise.  

          • AC, I was a professional libertarian for a decade and I’m intimately familiar with the entire libertarian bestiary. Very few are like the sellouts here at BHL, with whom I have a great deal in common philosophically. 

          • All this taxonomic filigree reminds me of Woody Allen’s line from Sleeper: “I’m what you would call a teleological, existential atheist– I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey.”

    • Anonymous

      Wait, what? We had 20-40 years of exactly this: paleolibertarians, fusionism, etc, that began with Goldwater.

      “If you’re going to reject a political label based on your distaste for some of the people who share it”

      So are you a non-fascist or non-communist on purely theoretical grounds? That these can lead to Hitler or Mao or Stalin is significant to me. What Rand actually said and did is important information about Objectivism. It should matter to people that a single-minded focus on economic liberty can lead to an actual outcome like Rand+Rockwell saying the things they said.

      • Jesse Walker

        Wait, what? We had 20-40 years of exactly this: paleolibertarians, fusionism, etc, that began with Goldwater.

        Those folks explicitly didn’t reject the libertarian label.

        So are you a non-fascist or non-communist on purely theoretical grounds? That these can lead to Hitler or Mao or Stalin is significant to me. What Rand actually said and did is important information about Objectivism. It should matter to people that a single-minded focus on economic liberty can lead to an actual outcome like Paul+Rockwell saying the things they said.

        I don’t think that’s the argument Will is making, and at any rate it isn’t the one I’m rejecting.

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  • The problem of Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell and Murray N. Rothbard is that they strayed away after their 1988 Libertarian Party campaign with their brand of paleo-Libertarianism, by deciding to pander to a Hard Right constituency. Those were the most willing subscribers they found for their Newsletters, as Paul told Ed Crane. The Newsletters kept them thriving from 1989 onwards.

    Only with the advent of the Internet, when they could switch to websites, they dumped the Newsletter publishing. The Internet dramatically reduced their information distribution costs, allowing them to fund the website(s) by advertisements and some donations, while greatly expanding their potential readership far beyond the reach of their paper version.

    It is thus no coincidence the Newsletters have been terminated after their websites were up and running and well on a roll.

    Effectively has succeeded the Rockwell-Rothbard Report / Ron Paul Newsletters.

    • meh

      And Ron Paul is ideologically contaminated by small fragments of paleo-libertarianism when it comes down to certain social issues

      • Dain Fitzgerald

        During the Bush years LRC was associated with America hating leftism (“Unpatriotic conservatives” by Frum, etc.). Lew Rockwell was courting Cindy Sheehan, so to speak. You could say it was “contaminated” by commie-flirting leftism.

        The Socialist Workers Party UK made overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood during Bush’s reign and the attempt to end the Iraq war, but nobody suspected the former were actual theocrats.

        People who even dare imagine an alternative to the murky middle and the status quo are going to have to associate with kooks and cranks if coalition building is to go forward. But yes, there’s also remaining above the fray and being “idiosyncratic,” which actually meshes pretty well with libertarianism’s culturally autistic, gainfully employed computer geek socioeconomic profile.

  • Timo Wirkman Virkkala

    In the spirit of Jesse Walker’s advice, I sometimes refer to myself as a “LocoFoco agnarchist” – the latter term being his joking designation for my beliefs about the limits of knowledge of a possible workable ideal. The term almost screams “Idiosyncratarian” without being, uh, inscrutable.

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  • “The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity.” “Taxation is often necessary and legitimate.”I hope no one is influenced by you. I’d rather have a “bigot” like Rockwell/Rothbard/Paul who won’t aggress against me even though he might not like me, than have a intellectual “liberal” powerhouse like you be so kind as to coerce me for my own good. 
    Who are you anyways?

    • To paraphrase: “I, Aaron Brown, as a white male, have have not experienced racism or sexism, therefore these are minor issues that pale by comparison to the size of my annual tax refund.”

      You may have noticed that right-libertarianism has limited appeal. It’s not because your arguments haven’t been heard, it’s because your arguments make you sound like a dick.

      • Michael J. Green

        Wild guess: Minorities’ lives have been made worse by their tax bill than by the Ron Paul newsletter.

        • Damien S.

          Well, yeah.  That’s because Ron Paul was a powerless obstetrician whose major accomplishments were becoming Libertarian Party presidential candidate, becoming a Representative, and having enthusiastic Internet supporters.  That doesn’t mean we want to make him president.

          “I miss the closet. Homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society,
          were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their

          “Order was only restored in LA when it came time for the blacks to collect their welfare checks.”

          ” The federal-homosexual cover-up on AIDS (my training as a physician helps me see through this one.)”

          “An ex-cop I know advises that if you have to use a gun on a youth, you
          should leave the scene immediately, disposing of the wiped off gun as
          soon as possible. Such a gun cannot, of course, be registered to you,
          but one bought privately (through the classifieds, for example)”

      • If your calculation about limited appeal were right, self-described conservatives wouldn’t greatly outnumber self-described liberals.  But if you got to dictate who sounds like a dick, so to speak, you could simply raise or lower your standards to bestow dickdom on anyone you opposed or overlook the dickdom of anyone you supported.

  • Oh you’re a Cato scholar no wonder, haha! Statists unite!

    • Oy.  Anyway, Will doesn’t work for Cato anymore, and his views are his own, not theirs.

    • LOL.

    • It’s always nice to be reminded that many libertarians really are walking caricatures.

    • Anonymous

      This is the Murray Rothbard-founded Kochtopus-funded Cato, right?

  • Anonymous

    I know that I need a moderate level of economic freedom in order to be free. I view liberaltarianism as an important stepping stone to streamline our government.  However, has libertarianism ever actually worked to improve the life of *most* people or just the lives of those who were lucky enough or willing to claw their way to the top? So much of libertarianism is mere dogma and our current and past politicians corrupt (starting with their benefits, stated and unstated).  How would pure libertarianism in reality be different? Politicians, in general, need to be reigned in.

    I don’t like to take the perspective of “helping our fellow less fortunate human beings”  because too many sit on their behinds with their hands out.  Entitlement (along with a lack of civil responsibility and avaristic corporations gone wild) is a big reason why universal health isn’t currently sustainable. I prefer the perspective that as a society, we give a safety net to the unlucky or a leg up to people willing to put out the effort to benefit from either, but still allow people to experience the consequences of poor decisions (including the powerful making underhanded decisions). Universal health care, good education, and omsbudmanship are foundational to this end, and they can be sustainable.  I am an Independent because I don’t see any party having all the answers and each having some of them, but I think my core instinct leans liberaltarian.

  • Chris Brennan

    Given the evolution of his views, Will probably fits better under the liberal label along with people like Matt Yglesias.

    Liberals like Matt and Will tend to spend their energy trying to convince other liberals that the degree of economic security required for people to be truly free will be maximized by reducing the amount of inefficient government intervention in small-scale economic decisions.  Like other liberals, both Matt and Will share a basic acceptance of the magnitude of government power in modern democratic states.

    I don’t see much hope for a strong alliance between the libertarian brand and the liberal brand even if people like Matt and Will come to have more influence on the liberal side. 

    Libertarians do not share the liberal’s belief that a fundamental purpose of government is to ensure economic security.  And liberals do not share the libertarian’s belief that state power needs to be limited wherever possible because it is backed by violent coercion.  (Will, in aligning himself as a liberal not a libertarian captures this explicitly, “Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to
    be free.”)

    At best there will be particular policy changes (e.g. decreasing the amount of arbitrary business licensing regulation for jobs like interior designers) that both groups may agree upon for different reasons.

  • Anonymous

    “Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity.”

    I agree with the first sentence. The second is demonstrably false, or a show of arrogance and hubris. So you know when taking other people’s money is necessary? How wise of you! The third one does not explain what’s been good about the Holocaust, Fukushima, Tchernobyl, and many other things “nation”-states have been doing as a general rule.

  • Fernando Teson

    I join my fellow bloggers in welcoming Will Wilkinson.
    It seems to me this is just a verbal issue. People believe what they believe, and labels are unimportant, except for one reason: it would be nice to rescue the word “liberal” to designate, as it once did, someone who believes, for example, that individual freedom is better protected by limited government.

  • Thomas Hepplewhite

    Libertarian’s don’t care about freedom but rather liberty. Unlike the former liberty is a distinctively moral concept. You seem to think greater economic freedom is good because it gives people more choices. And perhaps you’re right but libertarians are not committed to greater choice but rather greater liberty (construed as something like greater non-interference with rights).

    • This is one way to think about liberty and freedom. It’s not the only way, and doesn’t have any special claim to being the right way. 

    • Anonymous

      “libertarians are not committed to greater choice but rather greater
      liberty (construed as something like greater non-interference with

      “Libertarian” is a concept, that can play out in diverse ways when applied to 300mil – 7bil individuals.

      Poverty carries reduced rights just as wealth allows for greater rights.  Recognition of how freedom, liberty, economics, and government interact is not clear cut, and so is an important discussion (if this blog has any legitimacy).

      • Rights don’t follow wealth.  Power does follow wealth, but rights don’t.

  • “The argument over which rights and liberties ought to be treated as constitutional fixed points, and thus ought to be off the table of democratic negotiation, is not a debate between liberals and the people who think taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal enterprise. It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.”

    Yes, people who argue about whether “taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal enterprise” are distracting from the central question, which is fairly simple to frame under our Lockean-based Constitution, its two classes of taxation, and subtle distinctions between what is income vs. what is property: Does the individual have a property right in his/her mind, body and labor?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Will. Re your interesting post: I am puzzled how to reconcile a thick conception of economic liberty which should be constitutionally protected with your comment that “democracy is about as good as it gets.” If you have constitutional protection for a thick conception of economic liberty, you are limiting–significantly–democratic decision making.  Right?

    • Totally. By “democracy” I meant, as most people do, liberal democracy, which limits the scope of democratic discretion. 

      • Anonymous

        Even in “liberal democracy” you have an utopian outlook.  But I suspect you may not even have an outlook but, rather, have perfected colorful nothingness and fit right in with the statist Economist crowd.

  • Anonymous

    I have no idea what the point of this post is.

  • Anonymous

    I read this post twice, and have no idea what the main point is.

  • As much as I appreciate Will Wilkinson’s contributions to the libertarian movement, I find that in most of his articles he commits the same error that liberals do: conflating society and government. I agree that freedom should be defined more broadly than simply “non-coercion” and “respect for private property,” but why is it necessary to use the heavy hand of government to impose a social order that we find desirable? I think it is possible to expand social freedoms by simply promoting the free exchange of ideas and philosophies through our own conscious-raising movements.

    • Alex, If you take a look at my long Cato inequality paper, there’s a whole section on not confusing society with the membership of a nation-state. I call it analytical nationalism and declare it a fallacy. A government is a faction in control of the state, which exercises power over a territory and it inhabitants. Anyway…

      • Thanks for the reply. Your paper looks like an interesting read.

  • Anonymous

    Will / BHL,

    Why not resurrect “Market Liberal” ? It isn’t unwieldy the way I think “Neo-Classical Liberal” and “Liberaltarian” are, and both the left and right should intuitively understand what each word means: Free markets | social and civil liberalism.  I think “Market Liberal” also implicitly signals that libertarianism’s harder edges aren’t obligatory, or included at all. I think of people like Tyler Cowen, Brink Lindsey, and Jeffrey Friedman. 

    • Damien S.

      Problem is, how does it exactly differ from liberals?  Contrary to libertarian/conservative propaganda, liberals don’t tend to hate markets for their own sake, but push for government in places they see markets as failing.   You do have leftists who want to exclude markets from some areas even if functional for equality reasons, like Canadian opposition to “two-tier” health care, but most of the time in the US it’s “markets don’t do this well” not philosophical opposition.

      • The difference is that liberals never see the mental poverty of poor people as the cause of any market failing.

    • I sort of like market liberal, but at the same time I think it invites the impression of market fetishism.

      • That sounds a lot like John Kay (Financial Times) defining his position as Liberal Pluralism, isn’t it?

    • Thomas Webb

      One thing I have noticed is that “liberals” are abandoning the term liberal and preferring “progressive” instead. Maybe people like us are a better fit for that label than they were. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, eh?

      • That’s what I’m thinking, Thomas.

      • The abandonment of the term “liberal” was largely in response to neo-conservatives like Rush Limpballs turning it — successfully, unfortunately — into a swear word. 

        Others along the left side of the dial hold that “Liberal” denotes a political position, whereas “Progressive” denotes active participation in a left-ward movement. Sort of the difference between a noun and a verb.

        Still others farther left prefer the term “Leftist”, maintaining that Liberals are sell-outs to Conservatives (think DLC Democrats like Clinton) and Progressives are just wimpy Liberals afraid to be labeled either Liberal or Leftist.

        Personally, I have no idea what to call myself, and I’ve largely given up caring much. Labels can serve as convenient short-hand, but they carry the risk of misinformation. People are too quick to slap a label on somebody and then decide that label tells them all they need to know about that person’s beliefs, when in reality the label rarely conveys the full nuance of a person’s positions. Better just to talk and find that out, eh?

        • If there were no substance to their arguments, they could not have succeeded in turning it into a four-letter word.  Right and Left both always seem addicted to attributing losses to the dupe-ability of the Center.

          • More people than not think libertarians are whack-o’s. Does the same analysis apply?

          • First, you beg the fact.  Citation, please.  Second, you should read one of the responses on The Economist’s website to Will’s post, here:


            It’s pointed out there that libertarians are a specific, more or less centrist group with a particular philosophy– not a broad coalition of groups on one ideological extreme or the other– which means what they stand for will both be easier to criticize specifically and that they’ll get criticism from both sides.

      • Michael Zigismund

        Especially when it is our treasure to begin with.

    • Damien S.

      Granted, there’s a difference between a conventional liberal, supporting minimum wage, specific regulations against pollution, and public housing projects (does anyone still support those? Outside of Hong Kong or Singapore), vs. one supporting basic income or job subsidies, pollution taxes, and housing vouchers for use on the market.  And I support those; could I be a market liberal?

      OTOH, I also support a top income tax bracket of 50-70%, Medicare or VA style universal health care, public granaries with a 3-7 year food supply, land tax, nationalization of natural resource windfalls.  And am sympathetic to some tariffs and farm subsidies, not because I think markets aren’t short term efficient but because there are long-term security and prosperity concerns not met by short-term efficiency, like food security and having a diverse economy vs. one specialized to commodity export.  So maybe not.

      OTOH that’s not “socialist” either, except in a very broad sense, it’s certainly not a general central planning command economy position.  “Markets in many places, but not everywhere, and not left on their own”, to contrast with Cowen’s “markets in everything”.

  • Thanks, Will, for joining the stable of bloggers here! I suspect our views will line up considerably. I, too, spent some time in Libertaria in my political meanderings. I will forever thank Libertarians for teaching me how to question my preconceptions and to think critically about things political. Of course, then I applied those same critical thinking skills to libertarianism and found it lacking as well.

    My view is that the state or government of some kind is inevitable as nature abhors a vacuum. Our only real, living, choice is what that governance will look like and what it will do. In that regard, libertarianism is just another set of policy preferences and not particularly privileged either morally or intellectually.

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  • Michael Zigismund

    Remember: The single greatest failure of Milton Friedman’s career was his crusade to reclaim the label, “Liberal.” Perhaps the time is now ripe, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. (I also prefer “Individualist.”)

    In any case, I appreciate your post, but I think it misses the heart of this site. Labels are one thing, but the substantive philosophy is the gold behind the vault. Here, “libertarianism” generally means an emphasis on freedom — or as you term it — liberalism. “Bleeding-heart” is quite another thing and has to do with the well-being of the most unfortunate. The question of this site is: how do we balance the two? Or: to what extent does “bleeding-heart” justify “libertarian”?

    Your non-libertarian qualifications may or may not fit the “bleeding-heart” category, but exploring that line is exactly what we’re interested in.

    Whatever you call yourself, you sound like a libertarian to me. I think it’s a mistake to pitch too tight a tent in the libertarian world anyway. I look forward to reading more thoughts on your own philosophical or practical considerations, regardless of label.

    • ” … “Bleeding-heart” is quite another thing and has to do with the well-being of the most unfortunate. The question of this site is: how do we balance the two? Or: to what extent does “bleeding-heart” justify “libertarian”? …”

      What attracts me to the adjective “bleeding heart,” and to this blog site, is my desire to separate from libertarians who would abdicate most, if not all, responsibility for “the well-being of the most unfortunate,” such as by abolishing Social Security, the 16th Amendment, the IRS, child labor laws, worker-protection laws, etc. 

      But also to advance recognition of a subtle, little-known legal distinction that the Supreme Court made during the New Deal Era in Helvering v. Davis (1937), one of the “Social Security Cases.”

      The revolutionary nature of the two-part tax authorized by Helvering has nearly been lost because of income tax law complexity, but I’d like to state again that the tax on the employER is an UNavoidable excise tax on his/her paid-out wages (and it took decades of post-Civil War legal battling to assure everyone that this kind of tax is not a direct tax on human labor, i.e., not a tax that must follow the apportionment and proportionality rules mandated by the Constitution’s two Direct Tax Clauses.

      On the other hand, the currency-regulating “special income tax” (Supreme Court words) levied on the employEE is avoidable if the employee makes a proper legal claim (as any real Lockean libertarian should) that one’s wages are personal property, not income.

  • Anonymous

    I think its interesting how the “naming scheme” used for the political landscape influences political discussion and, due to effects like group loyalty and confirmation bias (or in other cases, idiosyncratism and contrarianism), actually effects the political views held by people.

    Over here in Germany, the label “liberal” has never been hijacked by the progressive left, it still centers around what you might call “classical liberalism”, but is broad enough that it would probably be used as a self-description by Will Wilkinson AND the Bleeding Heart Liberals AND most American “classical liberalists”/liberaltarians/moderate libertarians.

    What you call “liberal” in the US, is simply called “left-wing” over here.

    Die-hard libertarianism doesn’t really exist at all in Germany’s political landscape, except for some obscure blogs in the depths of the Internet, and a tiny “libertarian section” within the only (itself pretty small) “liberal” (in the German sense) party, which however holds no actual significance towards shaping the political program of that party, which is dominated by views closer to those of Wilkinson.
    (In theory, that is – in practice, the party’s leadership and elected politicians tend to forget the party program, and prefer to stay in power by reducing themselves to majority providers for their respective conservative or social-democratic coalition partners, or indulging in clientele politics favoring specific industries and lobby groups. But that’s a whole different topic… 😉

    • Sascha, that behavior of the German Liberal party is typical coalition politics for most countries. 

      Liberals are relatively small in nearly all European countries, but frequently necessary to make a coalition majority work. It even happened in the UK recently.

      Only last year the Liberals came out on top (first time since 1917) in the Netherlands and Belgium off-course had Guy Verhofstad as Liberal prime minister. But they have been for decades a regular coalition member.

      The more interesting point of course is to point at the LDP (the Japanese Liberal Party), who dominates its politics since WWII, but is more like a conservative party in its actions.

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  • Anonymous

    You have a good point when distinguishing between “prevailing public understanding” of labels, in particular liberterianism, and what I would call “the political junkie understanding”. I am afraid, however, that your efforts to communicate with the former will pass over the head of the later.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds to me like you are equating “Rothbardian” with general libertarian.  

    • Anonymous

      The belief that taxation does not equal theft is by far a worse dogmatism.  Most BHLs here seem to be convincing themselves of revolution within a form– and can resort to great complexity, taxonomy and detailed nuances in rationalization.  But taxation equaling theft– so simple, so elegant, so unrequiring of PhD rhetoric, so just, so obvious as the sun in the sky, is given no quarter.   

      • Taxation is theft like  property is theft. 

        • Anonymous

          Ahaa. Five syllables!  PJ Proudhon, telegraph your office.

      • Damien S.

        Land rent equaling theft is just as simple, elegant, and obvious.

  • Anonymous

    What is the definition being implied here of “economic freedom”?

    Ownership of land, for example, provides control to one party at the expense of excluding every other party – is this an increase or decrease of aggregate freedom? If the notion of freedom is based on the idea of no restraints, then I am in theory, if not in practice, as restrained by private decisions of exclusion as by public ones, and I could use my freedom of action to deny freedom of actions to others – one of the reasons that a law like the Civil Rights Act was problematic for properterian liberterians.  If the vast majority of residents decides to build a town with no sidewalks and in which driving is the priority, then my ability to chose a non-driving lifestyle is severely contrained, and if every community gets a say in who gets to come in or not, my ability to leave my car centric town to say a pedestrian or cyclist friendly one might be severely constrained.

    So the question is, how far do we balance individual autonomy with collective autonomy (for human beings are social creatures who value the well-being of the group since it was in grups that we came to dominate the planet and our environment) and what forms of personal autonomy should be prioritized. As a liberal, I think “liberals” need to have a better discussion amongst themselves about what is the kind of blanace we want to push, which is why a better definition of terms would be helpful. 

  • Anonymous

    Labels are like metaphors.  They shed light up to a point, after which they obfuscate the core issues.  I for one think the line has been crossed here.

  • I’m probably coming in too late here, but what I find weird is that there is this tortuous nomenclatural discussion, when outside of the US everyone just calls this “neoliberalism” and everyone seems to have a pretty good idea what that is. So why not call it that? I can’t think of anything in Will’s views that would create distance between him and that as the rest of the world understands it.

    • I think neoliberal suits me pretty well, though lots of social democrats seems to think neoliberalism involves some kind of official endorsement of oligarchy. 

  • bill woolsey


    How is your version of liberal different from Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and James M. Buchanan’s versions of libertarianism?

    • It’s much more like a liberal political philosopher’s.

  • Well, I hope the libertarian coalition will keep growing — rightward, leftward, and otherwise — even if Will doesn’t feel part of it, as I blog here:

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  • Roger Koppl

    Great post, Will.  I always insist that I am not a libertarian for similar reasons.  The Pinker book is a big deal IMHO, and  makes it harder to hold to hardcore libertarianism.  There is also an issue of “Humean status quo bias” (as I call it) that is deeply ingrained in the liberal tradition of Hume and Smith, but absent from libertarianism as far as I can tell.

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  • Anonymous

    Very interesting Will, and glad to have you with the liberals.

    But please, don’t cite Pinker for anything.

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  • “The argument over which rights and liberties ought to be treated as
    constitutional fixed points, and thus ought to be off the table of
    democratic negotiation, is not a debate between liberals and the people
    who think taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal
    enterprise. It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.”

    Two thoughts here:

    1) Libertarians are not necessarily anarchists.  Nation states are indeed blessings, when they are not being the worst curses upon mankind. 

    2) The debate is indeed between liberals.  The entire debate is in arranging different factions to come together to declare rights wherever the majority wishes, largely at the expense of the minority.  There is rarely a set of principles upon which the debate is argued…unless there is  libertarian in the room.  All of a sudden, health care is a right?  Where did that come from?  Oh, that’s right, a majority of those liberals declared it so.  Frankly, history teaches me to fear what else they may declare.  I prefer the debate be in the abstract, with the rules applied to all equally, rather than the horse trading debate that favors clearly defined recipients.  The latter is just too easy to abuse, in particular in democracies. 

  • Anonymous

    Some comments:
    “Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free.”  This looks non-substantive.  The word ‘free’ is so indeterminate in meaning that you should be allowed to define it however you like, within a rather broad range.  Let’s not quibble about definitions of terms.
    “Taxation is often necessary and legitimate.”  It would be nice if you gave us some guidelines about the circumstances that are supposed to confer legitimacy, or at least a hint of *how* often taxation, as actually practiced, is supposed to be legitimate.  (‘Necessary’, I take it, just means *preferable to its absence*.)
    “We pick our fights, and I’d like to pick ones that stand a chance of making a real difference.”  Are you telling us your real views, or tailoring your remarks so as to produce maximum practical influence?  A scholar should do the former, a politician the latter.  In which guise are you presenting yourself?
    “I’d rather not be affiliated with a ‘movement’ that includes him [Ron Paul] in even a conflicted way.”  This purism is surprising.  You (like the rest of us) are willing to affiliate yourself with theorists who disagree with you on some fundamental points, and with politicians who pander somewhat to popular prejudices (as all politicians do).  Maybe you are right that Ron Paul, *qua* politician, has pandered too much or in an unacceptable fashion, for which he should not be forgiven today; but the basis for this judgment is not evident.
    On a personal note:  you have come a long way from when I knew you at NIU.  Keep up the good work!

  • j r

    I am largely in agreement with this post.  There are quite a few elements of doctrinaire libertarianism that are simply not amenable to the sorts of discussion that you want to have.  Many of those are related to the somewhat Asperger-ey proclivity of elevating deductive reasoning over more rigorous forms of inquiry.  There is one thing you said that sticks in my craw, though.  This sentence:

    “It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.”

    Where exactly is this debate taking place, because, honestly, I don’t see it very often? Glenn Greenwald and, increasingly, Matt Yglesias might be exceptions, but by and large, the public intellectuals of the left fall into two categories.  There are the activists, the sort of people who blog for ThinkProgress or TPM, who mostly exist to help accumulate power in the hands of the left’s institutions.   And then the cosmopolitans, think of the typical New Yorker article, who exist to assure right-thinking progressives that they are indeed thinking rightly.  The former group can be brought around on the efficacy of markets, but only in as much as individual action, and the structure of the market itself, can be tightly constrained and brought under the control of some centrally directed authority.  As for the cosmopolitans, you can certainly get them to agree to a suitably robust conception of individual freedom, but they tend to have an outward aversion to the mechanisms of the market.Let’s put this in specific context, like health care.  

    I can understand why you might say something like, “I would rather spend my time trying to convince standard liberals that market mechanisms and consumer choice should be part of healthcare reform than trying to convince standard libertarians that the government should have any part at all in providing health care.”

    That, however, is a very constrained version of the standard libertarian.  More importantly, while many standard liberals will accept market mechanisms as a means to an end, their surface-level commitment makes the whole project dodgy.  Look at the health care reform that we did get.  It contains all sorts of market/consumer-friendly sounding elements, but is also centrally directed and held together by forced provision.

    • You’re absolutely right that it’s going to be “dodgy” getting standard liberals (such as myself) to accept market mechanisms as the cure-all to the provision of health care. Just like it would appear to be “dodgy” for liberals to get libertarians to abandon their fetishism of markets.

      This is a very basic difference in worldview. As near as I can tell the libertarian position amounts to a tautology whereby optimal distributional outcome is DEFINED as being the outcome produced by an unrestrained free market. So naturally, the only economic system that can meet that criteria is… an unrestrained free market. Surprise! No other criteria need apply.

      The liberal position (or in any case, this  liberal’s position) is that you can’t treat all markets the same. You have to distinguish between wants and needs. In the case of pure “wants”, e.g., 42″ flat-screen TV’s, there’s no problem with the unrestrained free market because there’s no moral difficulty associated with someone being deprived of that particular good. But in the case of a need, like health care, something which is a matter of literal life or death, the distributional consequences of an unrestrained free market deeply offend our moral sensibilities. Every bit as deeply as your moral sensibilities may be offended by, for example, taxation.

      And I’m sorry to have to break it to  you, but your moral sensibilities don’t automatically occupy some privileged position. Morals are not, as far as I can tell, objectively discoverable facts of the universe, like the gravitational constant. At best they’re generally agreed upon intuitions. “Thou shalt not murder” qualifies as such an intuition, but “Taxation is theft” doesn’t. More generally, a democratic process is a pretty good way of determining what qualifies as a “generally agreed upon intuition” acknowledging that you can never achieve absolute consensus.

      If you object to the democratic process for moral justifications, then you have to explain how you justify the market process for determining distributional outcomes.

      Perhaps our energies should be better spent devising solutions that best satisfy most of our individual moral intuitions while stipulating from the outset that total satisfaction of all of our individual moral intuitions is impossible.

      • Anonymous

        The ‘democratic process’ is not a fetish? Ahh, I see. You must be one of the wolves in Ben Franklin’s scenario. Meanwhile, I am covertly arming and training the sheep.

      • The black hole in the center of the liberal equation of wants and needs as you describe it is that the people you’re trying to help have both wants and needs, but often don’t satisfy all their needs first, and their wants, like anyone’s, are more or less unlimited.  Satisfy one, create another.  Which means that the market for wants will suck the money out of the needs section, creating these arguments that are politically convenient for the Left that they can’t live on less.  They might actually not be able to live on less, which is very likely the truth in most other countries, but since the American poor have freedom and use it to channel government help into wants, we’ll never know.  For sure without strong encouragement they’ll never channel that help into income-producing assets that might change the market equation about health care.

    • Anonymous

      Mises observed that, almost without fail, all those seeking to undermine the operation of a free market first attacked economics.  That’s exactly what you are doing with the “Asperger-ey” and “elevating deductive reasoning over more rigorous forms of inquiry” statements.  How inconvenient economic law is when there is so much to be done.  

  • Anonymous

    Yet economic laws are part of the universe and prior to libertarianism or morality. It is hard to imagine a reasonable political or ethical structure that is not informed of the human condition, though.  “Fetish.”  Really?  Your belief in “democratic process” is not?  Ahh. You must be one of the two wolves in the Ben Franklin scenario. Well, I’ve covertly armed and trained the sheep. Just a matter of time now. Sleep well.

    • “Yet economic laws are part of the universe and prior to libertarianism or morality. ”

      In which case, by definition, they’re amenable to the scientific method, which AE explicitly rejects.

      Your position is utterly illogical and untenable.

      • Anonymous

        Scientific method, by which you verification, falfiability, testability and maybe prediction?  How do you things that are not– like the human mind?  Positivists see a brain but not the mind.  How is the act of valuing observable? If there is no room for apriorism, deducing from irrefutable posits, how do you arrive at “All science is hypothetical”? 

        Is it e.g. really conceivable that humans do not use scarce means to attain ends?

        • “Scientific method, by which you mean verification, falsifiability,
          testability and maybe prediction?  ”

          Generally, yes. Although in conversations with adherents to AE like yourself I’ve found a very shallow understanding of how science actually works.

          “How do you hold constant things that
          are not– like the human mind?”

          Why would you want to? Behavioral economics is all about the determining how people behave, individually and in groups, when engaging in economic behavior. The mind is what you’re studying; it’s every thing else that you hold constant or vary to see what’s going on.

          “Positivists see a brain but not the

          And no one’s ever seen a quark. Doesn’t mean they doesn’t exist.

          “How is the act of valuing observable?”

          Inference. The same way we observe gravity, for instance.

          “If there is no room for
          apriorism, deducing from irrefutable posits, how do you arrive at “All
          science is hypothetical”? ”

          Here’s what I mean about not understanding science. Scientists use apriori deductive reasoning all the time. Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity purely from the use of thought experiments and mathematical models, not by inductive means. BUT, the theory was confirmed by experiment. If the experiments hadn’t worked out we wouldn’t know who he was now. In fact, the first experiment to confirm Relativity didn’t go quite right and was traced back to a mathematical error in his paper. Reality ALWAYS trumps theory.

          “Is it e.g. really conceivable that humans do not use scarce means to attain ends?”

          Uh…no. But so what? There’s a lot of steps and leaps of logic to go from that to the conclusions of AE that you take as gospel.

          What you guys are wanting to do is a throwback to a pre-scientific age where what we would call science now was called “natural philosophy”; basically, arguing for how the  natural world works based on “self-evident” first principles. The problem is many of those principles that seemed so “self-evident” turned out to be just flat wrong. We, as a species, didn’t really make serious progress in understanding the universe until we adopted the scientific method. We wouldn’t be having this conversation in this manner if physics were studied in the old ways.

          Even worse, in my opinion, in the notion that it is impossible to improve on the natural economic relationships and dealings between humans through the use of our intellect. If we applied the same principle to the rest of our lives we would be huddling in caves waiting to be eaten by bears.

          • Anonymous

            Inference is not the same thing as observation, contra your suggestion. Nonetheless, a “quark” may be useful– and indeed would qualify as an advance in science. For now.

            AE is not challenging physical and lab scientific method, nor the usefulness of deduction from hypothesis or first principle. Rather, AE claims to get at particular knowledge not accessible via natural science.

            The irrefutable axiom of ‘humans act’ accounts for the human process of valuation without resorting to nebulous “inference”. Maybe the psychologists will discover a universal unit, of previously thought to be purely subjective, “value”. Call it a quark of desire. Highly unlikely, however. 

            AE, through logic, recognizes generically that an individual does subjectively value– and finds it necessarily realistic that no measurement and constancy can be applied to this subjectivity. This revelation is indeed a blow to those that want the natural sciences to be the end all be all of epistemology.  Yet, in doing AE expands the frontier of  knowledge.  Denying this and other AE discoveries must betray the inadequacy in the observer.

            Here is a watered-down deduction that shows true addition to the reservoir of knowledge, avoids tautology (mere unfolding of definition, and indeed, refers to the empirical world, as one great teacher once described: 

            Humans want and need.
            Humans act.
            Humans act purposively.
            Humans act purposively and aim at ends.
            Humans act purposively and use scarce means to attain scarce ends.
            Humans become aware that two people can produce more than one (division of labor, ricardian law of association).
            These people may barter (coincidence of wants)
            Money evolves to solve heterogeneity of products/services
            Social division of labor explodes with indirect exchange (money)
            If more than one person is going after a product, Ceteris paribus, those who pay the most will get it.
            Supply and demand explains economic relationships, ceteris paribus.
            Supply and demand do not determine price structure- but prices show record of what was the supply and demand in numerical terms at one time.

    • Damien S.

      “It is hard to imagine a reasonable political or ethical structure that is not informed of the human condition, though”

      Thus why most people think libertarianism isn’t reasonable, as they think libertarians are wilfully ignorant or in denial of the human condition.

      As for Franklin, he got it wrong; democracy is more likely to be two sheep and a wolf voting on dinner.  Sheep outnumber wolves, after all, and wolves don’t need democracy, already having teeth.

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  • “Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion
    fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free.
    Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has
    been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.)
    Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern
    capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an
    appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The
    specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have
    profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant
    to the justification of those rights.”

    Shrug.  I’m a fairly standard libertarian and I don’t have much problem with all that. 

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  • 150trillion in unfunded liabilities.

    Address that, mr liberal-tarian.  Defend idiosyncrasy – fine.  Just explain how it gets paid for.

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  • Well written as always, Will! 

  • Will, I agree with a fair amount– hell, most– of what you say.  I’ve never been able to persuade myself to join the Libertarian party even though the small-l word comes closest to describing my views.  I particularly like the idea of being one of “the similarly inscrutably idiosyncratic [being] alone together.”  It reminds me of Dr. Seuss’s remark that what we call love is basically “mutual weirdness.”

    But if there’s one remark of yours I’d take issue with, it would be “The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights.” 

    To be brief, my response would be that rising in prosperity is a nearly direct function of adaptability to circumstance.  The legal rights you mention are the codification and not the cause of the rise in advantage we call wealth that comes from adapting to circumstances.  Back when access to the ownership of income-producing assets that those rights come with was limited– first by primogeniture, and later by things like social limits on access to knowledge and the markets and high stock-trading commissions– I’d agree about the “profound distributive consequences,” but today those limitations are gone.  Today, what has profound distributive consequences is mainly the societal discouragement of talking about money, such that poor people are never educated about what they must do to be more in control of their lives.

    If we want to talk about justification, I’ll throw this notion out there:  redistributist policies are only justified by the continued strong efforts by poor people to rise, such that in theory such policies begin to end the need for themselves.  Throwing money at them while maintaining that poor people shouldn’t have to be lectured, which basically means that those policies will save the poor from cause and effect and the resulting need to change their ideas or actions, is the practice by the Left that the Right correctly hates.

    • Anonymous

      The biggest beneficiaries of redistribution are the government connected goods/service providers.  These entities are very much organized and entrenched to keep the money and privilege flowing. ‘The poor’ are not the primary concern, structurally speaking.  The Drug War victimizes the poor and minorities while (lower) middle class whites (e.g.) get prison and law enforcement jobs.  Public education is another example. Highly unionized, bureaucratized, increasingly centralized, compulsory, white ‘middle class’ dominated, and the largest thing on local political budgets.  
      You would have to make it policy that these distributionist benefitting castes would finally rise to negate the ‘need’ for this redistribution anymore. Good luck with that.

      • Your point seems to be that everyone engages in rent-seeking.  I’m sure there’s some, both on the right (Cargill et al.) and the left (AFSCME et al.) but my point is that those who have become richer are those who saw the situation and changed their behavior to acquire the income-producing assets involved.  If poor people were using the money from redistributive policies such as their income tax refund (they don’t pay income taxes, but their employers still have to do withholding, so they get a refund) and the child tax credits, to acquire those same assets, then their financial situation would begin to regress to the mean– which is upwards.  But they won’t get the money or keep the money unless they’re told the truth about how it works.

        • Anonymous

          The ‘truth about how it works’ must include rent-seeking behavior as a viable option. But does everyone on the government dole understand how the welfare/warfare state creates a caste system?  It ain’t in the brochure.

          • Don’t we legitimize rent-seeking by calling it viable?  It can’t be a one-way street, after all, with only equalizing rent-seeking being condoned.

          • Anonymous

            It is the parasitical truth of how things work.

  • Damien S.

    Top country in the world on PISA tests of educational achievement?  Finland, which does not even *have* private schools — nor mass standardized tests, to train the for PISA.
    The articles note that “well it’s small and homogenous” doesn’t work as an explanation, since it can be compared to Norway — similar demographics, American style education, mediocre results — or individual American states, many of which are as smaller or smaller and homogenous, and of course mediocre. It also still gets good results with immigrant/refugee heavy schools.

  • Anonymous

    from another commenter: “you must be a shill for the NWO regime.”

    That kind of silliness sums up why I agree with the general gist of this post. There are a lot of folks like me out here. We’re prime candidates for supporting Libertarian politics, business owners, fans and students of the Austrian School… but turned off by conspiracy theories and extremism.

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  • Damien S.

    radgeek: “Now, it’s certainly true that given my stated standards (honest labor or
    consensual transfer, not conquest or arbitrary claim) a great deal,
    perhaps the overwhelming majority, of all the land claims in every known
    society are illegitimate claims rather than legitimate ones. But so

    There’s lots of ‘so what’. First of all, if the overwhelming majority of land claims in the US are illegitimate, then objections to property taxes or zoning or environmental restrictions based on such laws infringing on the rights of legitimate property owners are invalid objections, because there are approximately no such property owners.  Much of libertarianism thus loses practical relevance.

    We could then ask of a political/moral theory that it tell us what to do in a world of ubiquitous illegitimate property claims, particularly one where there is *no* clear “rightful owner” to simply return property too.  Of course, that mighht be trying to run, when first we have to crawl in determining how unclaimed land is legitimately appropriated.  “Honest labor” sure, but does that create indefinite claims, and what about the Lockean proviso?

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  • Anonymous

    I fail to understand your reading of Pinkers excellent book. His idea of the leviathan is simply law and order; not Hays Kansas in 1870. He correctly points out that authoritarianism does not have a civilizing effect. At several points he emphasis’s that punishing victimless crimes does not aid the civilizing process. A more thorough examination of his book is suggested. 

    • Damien S.

      Actually, part of his Civilizing Process speculation traces back the courts of strong kings and their expectation of proper behavior. And much of the Civilizing, like not eating with weapons at the table (replacement of belt knives with silverware or chopsticks) happened in authoritarian societies.

      Lots of liberals are sympathetic to not punishing victimless crimes, so no traction there.

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  • Mememememe

    I’m trying really hard to follow these really interesting, sophisticated posts, but I find myself falling asleep (it must be the beer…”ha ha”). I would like to state my reasons for being a libertarian but not a capitalist libertarian:
    1. All governments are bad. They harm to help themselves, then they tell you that if you don’t like that, you should help yourself. Then when you try to help yourself, they call you a subversive and do bad things to you.
    2. Capitalism is exploitation no matter how sophisticated your arguments may be. Tell the kid living in the slum that he’s not being exploited because this would mean that a re-distribution of wealth is stealing from the proletariat. Better yet, ask the proletariat if he would mind including the slum kid as an owner of the means of production even if he is not a worker.
    3. Charity is a poor excuse for class structures. If you’re going to have class systems in place, why bother with a false sense of brotherhood? No one likes condescension.

    I believe with these three tenets, everyone should be on their way to becoming a socialist libertarian.


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  • SocraticGadfly

    Very good piece. In turn, I, as someone who would be considered a “libertarian socialist,” would much rather dialogue with the likes of you than with the Rands, the Kochs, or anybody close to them.

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