“When it says Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s on the label label label”

The current online kerfuffle among libertarians (and Horwitz and I had nothing to do with this one!) involves labels. Glenn Beck has recently relabeled himself from conservative to libertarian. Alexander McCobin, the president of Students for Liberty, joined a lot of other long-time libertarians in questioning the sincerity of that relabeling, and in return Beck labeled McCobin a jerk, a Fascist, and a Nazi. It’s internet gold.

This kind of argument is one of the things that makes me nervous about labels. As nearly everyone involved in the kerfuffle has noted, labels that demarcate who’s in and who’s out have the nasty whiff of the purity test about them. The last thing libertarians need is to become more like the American Kennel Club than we already are. Debating whether one is insufficiently anti-state, too anti-state, or just anti-state enough seems to me to be about as sensible  as deciding whether a chihuahua’s expression is sufficiently saucy.

Now, I know which of these two guys I’d back if they were entering the Westminster dog show, but that’s not important for this post, because what I want to talk about is another way that labels can be a problem.

They’re too good at what they are designed to do.

Labels are designed to simplify things. They group people together on the ground of common characteristics. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s remarkably efficient and—like the scientific taxonomy that groups life by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species—it makes a lot of things possible that would not otherwise be. Imagine a discussion of religion where we couldn’t use the labels Christian, Muslim, Jew, and Hindu, for example, but instead had to describe—every time—the relevant differences in theology.

However, the precision of labels as used by scientists is not often reflected in non-scientific writing or in conversation. Instead we are treated to conversations like some I have had recently, where I’m asked if I’m a feminist, say yes, and am told that therefore I must be a socialist, or support the minimum wage hike and Obamacare. Or, I’m asked what kind of philosopher I am (a question guaranteed to make a poet’s head explode), and I say that while I’m not a philosopher, I’ve always thought that Kant had a point about not treating other people as means to your own ends. Naturally I am then told that I am a Kantian and must subscribe to a long list of beliefs that seem, to my interlocutor, to follow logically, but seem to me to be entirely unrelated.

The point is that it is very easy to use labels to avoid having to think about what we mean. They serve as a kind of ideological shorthand that assumes we can stick a label onto a jar and thereby tell what’s inside it, instead of looking inside the jar first and discovering what’s really there. That’s what’s happening when we say “I’m a libertarian” and people recoil in disgust and assume that means we like the confederacy, or think the poor “deserve” poverty. That’s what’s happening when someone else—like Hayek for example—supports a minimal social safety net and gets called a totalitarian or a socialist. That’s what’s happening when I recently saw two great students talk past each other about being “autonomous.”

In The Power of the Powerless Vaclav Havel wrote that:

“…ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’ s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority.”

That’s the utility and the seduction and the danger of this kind of shorthand thinking. As everyone who loves a good Ikea meatball has recently discovered, sometimes a label doesn’t tell you everything you might want to know about what’s inside.

  • Gurrie

    I agree completely. The comments below are from a piece I had written about political labels:

    “It’s pretty easy to find things we don’t like about government and politicians. Maybe that’s one reason why there is so much negative campaigning. We see a lot of battles between “us” and “them”. The “us” is our own group, and the “them” is any group or ideology that poses what we consider to be a threat to our way of life.

    But let’s face it, if a person wants to get elected, he or she has to get the votes of more people than the opponent. And getting votes is often a process of identifying oneself as a member of some particular group or groups. “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” is a start, but this turns into “I’m a Liberal” or “I’m a Conservative” or “I’m a Moderate”. This is followed by “I’m a Union Member” or “I’m Irish” or “I’m Black” or “I’m a Woman”. How about this one: “I’m a Black Woman Democrat who is a Social Moderate and a Fiscal Conservative”.

    Group identification is inevitable, and maybe there is nothing wrong with it, until it becomes a substitute for clear thinking and compassionate understanding. Group identity would be pretty harmless if it weren’t too often used as the main reason, sometimes the only reason, for voting for a person or group, and opposing another person or group. Voting a certain way as a union member, or a small businessman, or a farmer is not wrong, but it is often just a way to avoid having to really think about how we can improve the way government affects our lives.”

  • Fallon

    Hayek admitted to never completely leaving the Fabian Socialist strain of his teacher Friedrich von Wieser. What word would you use to describe someone that rejects laissez faire, as Hayek does, and favors government control/intervention of resources in X key areas? Social democrat? Neoliberal? Liberfabian?

    Certainly not libertarian. Unless you want to discount economics. Mises was right when he labeled the Mont Pelerin Society attendees “Socialists!”.

    Granted, Hayek did reject the notion that UBI was implementable on at least one occasion, I recently read. The incentives, free money etc, would create demographic calamity.

    • j r

      Hayek as social democrat?

      This comment alone makes Skwire’s point.

      • Fallon

        Not really. Will the real Hayek please stand up. Another way to look at it: If Hayek was really a free market libertarian– there is no way in hell that Margaret Thatcher would have been a fan.

        What is worse, labeling that over-identifies (“Hayek is a social democrat”) or mislabeling (“Hayek is a libertarian”)?

        Skwire’s admonishment works well in reference to the McCobbin and Beck kerfuffel; not as strongly with Hayek. Skwire’s example, the “totalitarian” charge, might have come from Antiwar Radio hero Scott Horton. In typical Scott Horton fashion it was tinged with hyperbole and emotional vernacular. The charge was backed by a semantic/syntactic treatise. And it’s fine in my book. (Insert Artistic Communication 101 quotations here.) Must language be filtered to sound like NPR?

        The way self described “libertarians” put Hayek on a pedestal makes Horton’s response timely. it is similar to the way people condemn the Catholic Church in response to the pedo scandals. The Church may actually have a lower proportion of sickos than the populace at large: It is the distance between the image and reality of the Church, of Hayek, that makes the difference.

        Have you seen the George Carlin skit where he says “F^@k the children!” ? Do you think it should be taken at face value?

        • Fallon

          Sorry. Should read: “The charge was backed by a semantic/syntactic treatise.”

      • Fallon

        Alright,j r, maybe the chihuahua sauce is a little too spicy. But there are caveats- some of which I have pointed out- to Skwire’s take on labels.

        Re Hayek. If he is libertarian, then he is as socialist as a libertarian can be. If he is socialist, then he is as libertarian as a socialist can be. Is that fair, in your estimation?

        • j r

          I honestly don’t know what that means. The most precise term to describe Hayek that I can think of is classical liberal. I guess you can argue that classical liberals should be excluded from the spectrum that is libertarianism, but that tells me much more about you than it does about libertarianism.

          • Fallon

            Shouldn’t there be distinctions? Why not make libertarianism a more stringent form of classical liberalism in particular ways. There is a strong case that Bismarck and Marx were classical liberals by BHL standards. But libertarians? At any rate– here is a quick rundown of Hayek’s pro positions, leaving aside many of Hayek’s underlying justifications. He certainly departed from traditional views on coercion, embraced “market failure with state remedy” schemes, was pro-Pinochet, rejected property as a the fundamental facet of economic calculation, and had none of Selma’s appeal… But anyway:

            Hayek supported State/Government…

            fixed minimum wage
            mandated maximum hours
            management of economic fluctuations
            orchestrated monetary stability
            wealth transfers from rich to poor
            run international body to regulate conflict
            development projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority
            organized insurance
            funded healthcare
            compulsory education
            food regulation
            building codes
            professional licensing
            city planning
            provision of public recreation/parks
            scientific research
            eminent domain

            “On the other hand, it is merely common sense that government, as the biggest spender and investor whose activities cannot be guided wholly by profitability, and which for finance is in a great measure independent of the state of the capital market, should so far as practicable distribute its expenditure over time in such a manner that it will step in when private investment flags, and thereby employ resources for public investment at the least cost and with the greatest benefit to society.” (Hayek 1979: 59)

            So you see where I am comin’ from?

          • matt b

            Can you provide a link for all these assertions? I’m not disputing your facts I’d just be curious to see some textual evidence beyond the short quote. I’m especially surprised that he would support the minimum wage, there’s a few other head stratchers on there too but some of the ideas are well within the limited government libertarian mainstream.

          • Fallon

            “Mainstream”? Who cares. Down with that wishy-washy incoherence.. How about Mainline?

            Rather than cite every point, since most is common knowledge to even first time readers of Road to Serfdom, I will paste the following interview snippet. It’s two statist economists and Hayek, taken from here:


            Now, Hayek has not been consistent throughout his very long career. I already mentioned his flip-flop on UBI. Hayek also seems to be against a minimum wage in his Hayek on Hayek interviews, but for it here. At any rate:

            Mr. Krueger: “What about limitation of working hours—a
            maximum-hours act? Is that compatible with your notions of
            proper planning?”

            Mr. Hayek: “Yes, if it is not carried too far. It is one of these regulations which creates equal conditions throughout the system. But, of course, if it does beyond the point where it accords with the general situation of the country, it may indeed interfere very much. . . .”

            Mr. Merriam: “Would any limitation on the hours of labor
            be objectionable in your judgment?”

            Mr. Hayek: “Not ‘any,’ but they can be. There you have one of the instances where my objection is not one of principle but one of degree. It is one of the things which cannot be made to fit the question of the cost involved in that particular

            Mr. Krueger: “Is a minimum wage law permissible?”

            Mr. Hayek: “A general, flat minimum wage law for all industry is permissible, but I do not think that it is a particularly wise method of achieving the end. I know much better methods of providing a minimum for everybody.
            But once you turn from laying down a general minimum for all
            industry to decreeing particular and different minima for
            different industries, then, of course, you make the price
            mechanism inoperative, because it is no long the price
            mechanism which will guide people between industries and

            Mr. Merriam: “What about the TVA?”

            Mr. Hayek: “There is a great deal of the TVA to which no
            economist in repute, and certainly not the laissez-faire people will object. Flood control and building of dams are recognized functions of the government. I am under the impression that a good deal else has been tacked on to this
            scheme, which need not have been done by public enterprise.
            But the principle of flood control and the like’s being
            provided by the government is an entirely legitimate and a
            necessary function of the government.”

            Mr. Merriam: “Even if it involved a development of
            hydroelectric power, as the TVA does?”

            Mr. Hayek: “That depends upon the circumstances. If the
            hydroelectric power really could not have been provided by
            private enterprise, I have no objection.”

            Mr. Merriam: “That is not a matter of logic but of practical

            Mr. Hayek: “The whole question of whether you can or
            cannot create competitive conditions is a question of fact.”

            Mr. Merriam: “Not of logic?”

            Mr. Hayek: “All I am arguing about is that, where you can
            create a competitive condition, you ought to rely upon

            Mr. Krueger: “Is a comprehensive system of social insurance
            a violation of your definition of good planning?”

            Mr. Hayek: “Certainly not a system of social insurance as such, not even with the government helping to organize it. The only point where the problem can arise is how far to make it compulsory and how far, incidentally, it is used to strengthen the monopolistic actions of trade unions, because that is one way in which it may well eliminate competition.”

            Mr. Merriam: “You do not mean to say that you would be
            against any government social insurance, would you? You
            want to make it entirely optional?”

            Mr. Hayek: “It might well be made optional, which is not in
            contradiction to its being government assisted, but why it needs to be made compulsory I do not see in the least.”

            Mr. Krueger: “One of the reasons was that a great many
            people, the population at large, was supposed to get it. That
            was the reason for making it compulsory. I think that
            everybody is pretty well agreed on that.

            Mr. Hayek: “I do not know about that.”

            Mr. Krueger: “What do you think of a minimum guarantee of
            food, clothing and shelter to people? Is that a violation of
            your definition of proper planning?”

            Mr. Hayek: “What do you mean by a ‘minimum guarantee’? I
            have always said that I am in favor of a minimum income for
            every person in the country.”

            Mr. Merriam: “You used that in your own book (The Road to Serfdom). What did you mean by it?

            Mr. Hayek: “I will restate it in my own way—I mean to
            secure a minimum income on which every one can fall back.
            You have it, of course, very largely in the form of
            unemployment insurance.”

            Mr. Merriam: “When Krueger used that term, you seemed

            Mr. Hayek: “No, he turned it into a specific guarantee of
            particular things.”

            Mr. Krueger: “That was an exact quotation.”

            Mr. Merriam: “Of your book.”

            Mr. Krueger: “A minimum guarantee of food, clothing, and
            shelter. If that is permissible, then I am glad to hear you say
            so, because you do go considerably further than that. In the
            international field you want a power which can restrain the
            different nations from actions harmful to their neighbors. It
            seems to me that you do allow far more of public planning
            than most of the readers of your book in this country have

          • matt b

            Okay thanks for this. Interesting. I agree with most of it but, of course, I’m not a hard libertarian.

          • Fallon

            The question is whether you softies can deliver the goods. Hayek’s justifications are suspect. Especially the assertion that a monopoly institution with special taxing and legal rights can intervene “outside” and/or “without distorting” the market in such a way as to produce an empirically measurable, ante-action determined, comparably better benefit to the least well off. The, ha ha, labeling of hard v. soft cannot account for the what-looks-like-to-me bad economics at the base of Hayek’s moralizing. What about the initial disruption of calculation that government is– never mind any policy proposals. And then there is public choice theory…..

            Now, calculation and public choice are applicable to all forms of social organization. i.e. Each of us as individuals are special monopolies. But what form serves the moral imperative?

    • Fallon

      I am not sure what Hayek finally concluded on UBI, actually. His writing is not clear in many places. Yes, the inequality of wealth among different state demarcated populaces would make it necessary for UBI to go hand in hand with immigration restrictions. The following Hayek quotation is easily interpreted as meaning that UBI implementation is more important than immigration freedom. For now. At least until the developing world catches up. Either way, still, Hayek has himself in a socialist dilemma. National socialist if UBI and restrictions on cross border entry. World socialist if he forces wealthy nations to subsidize poor ones….

      “It is obvious that for a long time to come it will be wholly impossible
      to secure an adequate and uniform minimum standard for all human beings
      everywhere, or at least that the wealthier countries would not be
      content to secure for their citizens no higher standards than can be
      secured for all men. But to confine to the citizens of particular
      countries provisions for a minimum standard higher than that universally
      applied makes it a privilege and necessitates certain limitations on
      the free movement of men across frontiers… we must face the fact that
      we here encounter a limit to the universal application of those liberal
      principles of policy which the existing facts of the present world make

  • As everyone who loves a good Ikea meatball has recently discovered,
    sometimes a label doesn’t tell you everything you might want to know
    about what’s inside.

    I know what’s inside — balled meat. And that meat might even have been bald.

  • I like the comment by Havel.

    Labels don’t explain everything, and they also shift. In my own life I have gone from a slightly left of center student, to a conservative, And then, and Arch-conservative, and then slowly began a transformation to a form of libertarianism. But not the kind that would pass muster with the wild eyed guys in the Libertarian party.

    I suppose it is just a symptom of continuing to think for yourself, eventually you get a wide range of opinions about various subjects, Some which may even appear contradictory.

  • Sean II

    Sarah – Hands down, your style is the best on the board. All of the main authors here write interesting things, but in the pure-pleasure-to-read category, you’ve really set yourself apart.

    • Thanks so much, Sean!

      • Sean II

        Which reminds me: are you familiar with Emo Phillip’s “Die Heretic!” joke? There is urgent need for a libertarian version…

        One evening I came across a man poised to commit suicide by leaping from a bridge. I said, “Don’t jump.” He said, “Why not? I have nothing to live for.”

        I said, “Don’t you believe in a cause or something?” He said, “Yes, I’m a libertarian.”

        I said, “Me too! What kind of libertarian?” He said, “Well, I guess you might say I’m really more of an anarchist.” I said, “Me too! Anarcho-Syndicalist or Anarcho-Capitalist?” He said, “Anarcho-Capitalist.” I said, “Me too!”

        He said, “I used to worship Rothbard but much less so now.” I said, “Me too!” He said, “Lately I’ve been more interested in tracing the roots back to Spooner, Tucker, and Molinari.” I said, “Me too!”

        He said “I’m just not convinced we have to ground every little thing in a closed-off, deontological framework to make the system work.” I said, “Me too!” He said, “I think that very mistake led Rothbard to some serious errors in his use of the homesteading concept, among other things.”

        I said, “Really? Me too! What would you say is the most compelling historical model of a stateless society?” He said, “The American West, of course.”

        I said, “Wrong, you statist piece of shit. It’s Medieval Iceland.” Then I pushed him off the bridge.

  • matt b

    I think the main problem with the label “libertarian” is that, to many people on the left, it means “crazy right winger who happens to think you should be able to sniff cocaine of a hookers stomach while simultaneously buying stocks which you will pay no tax on the profit of.” We libertarians have done a bad job communicating our distinctness from the right (as my example indicates saying you think drugs and prostitution should be legal is not enough). Think about it: libertarians write far more about economics for right wing publications like the WSJ and National Review than they do for left wing publications like The New Republic or The Nation. Indeed, most people identify libertarianism plain and simple with economics. We need to speak out more on other issues to demonstrate that we realize liberty is about a lot more than lower taxes and less regulation.

    • Gurrie

      Understanding that your main point is that the idea of liberty has to extend beyond economic issues, I would nevertheless argue that economics has got to be the centerpiece. It is the one and only subject where government interference is always wrong. Drugs and prostitution and other social issues usually have some sort of asterisk such as young age, willing consent, threats of violence etc., plus many centuries of religious and ethical teachings and indoctrination. If social conservatives disagree with libertarian positions on drugs and prostitution, I can still applaud when they support libertarian ideas on economics, without feeling any need to convince them that the rest of what I believe is right.

      • matt b

        I think there’s a lot of problems with this argument. To begin with, I don’t think it’s plausible to claim that government interference is always wrong in the economic realm. If you think young age applies to snorting coke why not to something like labor? Should there be no child labor laws whatsoever? Beyond that, there’s the question of externalities. Pollution is an area where even many libertarians support some government intervention and even many free market economists think there should be some health and safety regulations.

        It goes far beyond drugs and prostitution of course. Conservatives often support restrictions on free speech and immigration as well as the denial of equality in marriage on religious grounds. They also support various policies at odds with the separation of church and state. More fundamentally, it seems like your last statement could be just as easily applied to liberals. Would you say “I can still applaud when liberals support libertarian ideas on social issues without feeling any need to convince them that the rest of what I believe is right.” Probably not right?

        I consider the social issues side of things to be just as important if not more so. Forced childbirth or throwing people in jail for pot sounds a lot more freedom limiting to me than a higher tax rate. I’d rather live in John Rawls America than, say, Rick Santorum’s though both are deeply problematic of course. In any event, I just think the focus on economics has been excessive given the many other issues that involve questions of individual rights and liberty.

    • Part of the problem though is that there are areas of overlap with modern conservatives but not much overlap with the modern political left. As they really don’t resemble the old left so much as they resemble fascists. I am thinking of the cronyism, and drone strikes of the current administration and the nanny-ism of people like Bloomberg.

      • matt b

        I don’t think that’s right at all. There’s just as much agreeement if not more with the left. It is people on the left that stand with us on protecting a woman’s right to choose, championing marriage equality, ending the drug war, repealing the PATRIOT ACT, closing Gitmo, challenging the surveillance/ security state more broadly, opposing the extraordinary expansion of executive power under President War President and President Hope and Change. Beyond that, they are far more pro-immigrantion and pro-immigrant rights, oppose the religious rights war on the right of people to watch adult material, and stand firm against efforts to theocratize this country a la Rick Santorum.
        To your other points, Bloomberg is not a leftist but a bi-partisan fetishist’s wet dream centrist technocrat. And there has been more criticism regarding Obama’s drone war on innocents from left-wing sources like The Nation and Mother Jones than, say, National Review or the Wall Street Journal which have defended our war of terror, oops I mean on terror. Now lest I sound too soft on the left, I think they hold views on economics which are profoundly anti-freedom, opposing choice in education, health care, and retirement planning while supporting countless prosperity killing policies. But let’s not kid ourselves that the right are our flawed allies and the left are not worth our time. The right is just as flawed.

        • As long as groups like the Libertarian Party continue to believe that their natural allies are currently in the GOP, and that democrats and progressives are “statists”, “socialists” or “fascists”, the LP will never gain critical mass. I have tried to point this out to members of the LP in Texas, but they are too busy plotting and imagining their imminent glorious revolution against the Federal Government to listen.

          • matt b

            Oh man, the LP is filled with loons and fools. The fact that a total right wing hack like Wayne Allyn Root could advance so high tells you all you need to know. I think that, unfortunately, there’s a fairly number of lunatic right wingers who think of themselves as libertarian but really aren’t and they give libertarians a bad name. It’s a shame that the party won’t heed your call for enlightened outreach and respectful engagement. I think it may be a lost cause sadly though having Gary Johnson at the top of the ticket in 2012 gladdened my heart.

          • There are a lot of GOP partisans who think of themselves as libertarians. I have had discussions with them in the past. They always unravel in front of you when you ask them whether they support the War On Some Drugs, massive military spending, equal rights for gay people. etc. etc.
            The underlying challenge with the LP is that they will accept support from anybody, even if those people are authoritarians and wackadoodles, crackpots and wolves in sheep’s clothing. I’m not in favour of strict ideological purity tests if you want to be a mass-market political party,since that tends to reduce your pool of possible members, but if you accept any wackadoodle as a member because you think you need the members, sooner or later you are going to have to take yourself to the casualty ward after they blow your legs off in public with some incendiary collection of thoughts or actions.
            Right now, the LP is toxic to many progressives because its economic liberty arguments are incoherent and read like an apologia for capitalist excess, and it’s constitutional arguments are being advanced by a bunch of people whose instincts hover somewhere between secession and setting up a self-governing commune in the middle of nowhere because they can’t get their way. Absent, as has been pointed out, is any significant outreach based on civil liberties, which seem to be regarded by many libertarians as something that will magically appear once Government Is Off Our Backs.

          • matt b

            Very, very well said. I completely agree. I wish some thoughtful people would reform the party but right now things seem pretty hopeless.

        • I suppose what I was referring to was the actions of current left wing politicians, and no I do not agree with you. When you look at the modern left politicos, they do act like fascists and they do not resemble the principled left wingers of a generation ago. (By the way when was the last time a national left wing politician called for an end to the drug war?)

          I also think that on the social issues there is more variation of thought within the conservative movement than there is within the liberal movement. You can often find voters and even some politicians in the Republican party, for instance, who have libertarian views on social issues. You see nothing but a very tight zeitgeist enforced on the left. Enforced vigorously, no deviation tolerated.

          • matt b

            I hear where you’re coming from but I think the same could be said of right wing politicians. For example, while a right wing publication like National Review is filled with good economic ideas we libertarians suppport, actual right wing politicians spend their time passing things like No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, TARP, and so on and so forth. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that conservative hero Paul Ryan, the Mittbots VP, voted for everyone of those things. So while a lot of Dem politicians don’t represent the good ideas on the lef, a lot of Repub politicians don’t represent the good ideas on the right.

            Hm, that’s an interesting point. But what I would say is that those people in the gop are really just libertarians, whether they know it or not. I call them Clint Eastwood Republicans, they are rinos but instead of liberal they are libertarian. The number of socially libertarian GOP politicians is really small. Maybe there’s a few more of them than there are economically libertarian Dems but not many more and there’s vigorous enforcement of orthodoxy on the right too. Witness the cries of dirty mexican lover from Rush Limbaugh and company whenever someone in the party mentions immigration reform.

  • famadeo

    That last quote is key. I find that the whole issue of ideology is under-discussed. Personally, I tend to view ideology as inevitable. So long as you have a certain guiding value or set of values I don’t see how they can be taken seriously if not accompannied by a certain degree of articulation at a larger theoretical level, or by venturing into some conjecture as to how those values would be applied. This is how you end up in the realm of ideology which itself presents a new problem (as illustrated in the quote). I like what the post-left anarchists have to say here: the propose a “critical self-theory” which, to my understanding, consists of a constant revision of how ideas are articulated in order to keep those primordial values alive (in their case, personal autonomy). Still, I don’t think you can do without some sort of conjecture.

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