I’ve been asked a lot lately whether I am “still” a libertarian. One reason I think I’m asked this is that I spend a lot of time criticizing certain kinds of arguments familiar among libertarians and developing arguments for political positions that aren’t standard-fare libertarianism. But I realized that my work on public reason liberalism (PRL) is probably leading people to think that I’m not a libertarian because they think PRL and libertarianism are competitor theories. But they’re not.
I take libertarianism to be a first-order political theory that specifies what justice requires and what the best political order looks like. Its competitors are socialism, progressivism, etc. The theory is “first-order” because it specifies directly what institutions structures we ought to have.
Public reason liberalism is a theory about how to treat people with different first-order theories of the good and justice. It tries to transcend those theories and specify norms and institutions that all or nearly all persons can agree to. (Whether it does so successfully is a question for another time.) It only conflicts with libertarianism by demonstrating that the use of coercion against non-libertarians to establish libertarianism is disrespectful, authoritarian, sectarian, destabilizing, or whatever. There is no more problem with being a libertarian and a PRL than being a Christian or a Kantian about the good and being a PRL. PRL just specifies constraints on how we can pursue the realization of our ideals. What libertarians may not do is use coercion to establish libertarianism that cannot be publicly justified to other people (with the standard caveats about idealization, etc.).
But the constraints imposed by PRL only prohibit a very small portion of what libertarians actually do, and only a modest portion of what they hope to do. In my previous book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith, I argued that citizens have no duty to offer or act upon primarily public (shared) reasons in their political lives. Instead, all citizens can act upon their own private reasons, with certain very light restrictions. This means that libertarians are free to vote libertarian and organize for libertarian causes. Further, given that PRL protects freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and fairly extensive property rights (as I shall argue in my next book, Must Politics Be War?), libertarians can advocate for libertarianism in a thousand different ways.
In fact, on my view, libertarian politicians can push for libertarian laws so long as they are epistemically justified in believing that the laws can be publicly justified to non-libertarians. And that’s only when they try to impose coercion. If they seek to lift coercion that cannot be publicly justified (and little coercion can be publicly justified to libertarians), they can remove the laws for whatever reason they like. So when it comes to big libertarian issues like protecting civil liberties, stopping foreign policy intervention, legalizing drugs, restricting police brutality, school choice, and the like, public reason liberalism imposes no restrictions at all. In fact, it restricts non-libertarians from keeping those laws in place, since they cannot be publicly justified.
PRL and libertarianism only conflict in major ways if libertarians get into a position where they can establish a libertarian political order against the sincere, informed wishes of non-libertarian members of the relevant society. Forcibly imposing strict, extensive property rights on non-libertarians cannot be publicly justified. But this only prevents libertarians from imposing full-blown libertarianism on a populace of non-libertarians. It doesn’t prevent them from convincing people to become libertarians or to demand the right to engage in small libertarian experiments where everyone involved agrees, like seasteading, or even charter cities. And in my view, we’re only going to be able to convince people of radical libertarianism by showing that it works on a small scale.
You can be a libertarian and a PRL since they’re theories that answer different questions. Libertarianism answers the question, “What institutional structures are good and just?” PRL answers the question, “How do we live on moral, peaceful terms with people who disagree with us about which institutions structures are good and just?” Sometimes PRL and libertarianism conflict because libertarians often say they want to pursue establishing libertarianism without concern for non-libertarians who object. But in practice, libertarianism and PRL rarely conflict.
So I’m still a libertarian. But I don’t defend it a lot because I think others have already made the case for libertarianism effectively. I spend my blog time going after bad arguments for libertarianism or publicly working out my classical liberal approach to religion in politics. I spend much of my professional life exploring a question on which libertarians have been almost entirely silent. And it is this: how should libertarians treat informed non-libertarians of good will, given their enduring, honest disagreements? In my view, PRL provides the answer.