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.

  • Jerome Bigge

    The elimination of laws and regulations that benefit the few at the expense of the many (professional licensing, prescription laws, etc) result in the loss of free choice. The doctor’s legal monopoly over access to medical drugs means that he/she is able to make the decision for you in the same way that a vet makes decisions for your dog. You can disagree with his/her decisions, but you lack the power to decide for yourself. The same thing is true throughout the professional field. The legal profession (vastly overrepresented in government) has deliberately made our laws into a confusing maze for the benefit of their own profession. Few people today actually realize how much freedom they have lost.

    Government at all levels is far more limiting of what you can and cannot do than it would have been fifty years ago. And fifty years ago it was more limiting than it would have been a century ago. Going back further, it is easy to see for anyone who is familiar with American history that the power of government had been effectively “captured” by those who were using its power to enrich themselves at the disadvantage of everyone else. The “Gilded Age” of the last decades of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th Century show this very clearly.

    Going yet further back, we can see this in the way that our country’s “Founders” arranged things. Only the (male) owners of “property”(income producing) were allowed to vote. Senators were selected by state governments, not the people. The “electoral vote” (based upon number of state representatives in Congress) was used to void the popular vote at times. This is why we have had Presidents who actually won a minority of the popular taking office instead of the person who actually won the popular vote.

    As libertarians (small “l”) it makes sense that we remind people of these facts.

    • geoih

      I think two of your examples (senators and the electoral college) are poorly chosen. If federalism is meant to be a mechanism for shared sovereignty, then having senators elected by the state legislatures makes complete sense. Senators were meant to be the representatives of the states within the Federal government. As it stands now, the states are completely subordinate to the Federal government with no representation at all. The electoral college is based in Federalism as well (i.e., the president is elected by the states).
      I think if you have a quarrel with these items, then you have a quarrel with the entire concept of federalism.

      • King Goat

        Why are the state legislators better representatives of a state than the people of the state? That ‘the states’ can only be represented by the state governments and not the actual people of the state seems an odd libertarian position.

        • geoih

          Why do we even have state governments? Why do we have municipal governments? Why not just govern everything from Washington?
          My own state has a Republican majority in both state legislature houses and a Republican governor, but both senators are Democrat. Why do we have such convoluted congressional districts? Voting is always influenced by how the voters are grouped.
          In any case, if the separate states have no representatives in the Federal government, then how can we claim to have federalism.

          • Jerome Bigge

            The real issue is how much authority are we willing to give the federal government? Prior to the Civil War, state governments had a lot more power over their states than afterwards. The trend is to reduce the power of local and state governments and vest it in the federal government. The EU appears to be a trend to international governance, as is the idea in the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement where corporations would have the legal right to sue national governments over restrictions upon trade. Environmental agreements that would allow “action” to be taken against those national governments that don’t enforce the rules and regulations regarding the use of fossil fuels and the release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

            It would appear that we are moving further and further away from the idea of “federalism” and local control towards “One World Government”. .

        • M S

          State legislators are not necessarily better representatives of a state, but they are almost certainly better representatives of the state government. The theory goes, a senator selected by a state government is more likely to resist any national legislation that moves power from the states to the federal government even if the senator happens to like the substance of the proposed national statute, whereas a senator elected by the people is presumably indifferent to where the power lies as long as the substance is agreeable (and may want more federal power so he can create more federal legislation himself). If you think federalism is a good idea, then it makes sense to have someone representing state authority involved in the crafting of any federal legislation.

          Also, preferring state legislature appointment of senators is not a libertarian position as much as it is a federalist one. Federalism can be a means to greater individual freedom as well as greater state power depending on the relative interests of the state and national governments. I don’t think it’s implausible to argue that, on net, federalism is better for individual liberty and, in that sense, it may make sense for a libertarian to advocate for a more federalist system.

          • CJColucci

            The theory goes, a senator selected by a state government is more likely
            to resist any national legislation that moves power from the states to
            the federal government even if the senator happens to like the substance
            of the proposed national statute, whereas a senator elected by the
            people is presumably indifferent to where the power lies as long as the
            substance is agreeable (and may want more federal power so he can create
            more federal legislation himself).

            I know that’s how the theory goes, but what reason is there to think it is true? And since constitutional-amendment sized supermajorities have decided they’d rather have directly-elected senators despite whatever attractions the theory might have if true, what of it?

          • M S

            What reason? I don’t know. What reason is there to think that any of the theories underlying the constitution are true? Separation of powers was supposed to help democracy by playing off of politicians’ unwillingness to yield power to ensure that the legislative power stayed in the more representative branch. But Congress can’t throw power at the president fast enough, and now most federal law-making is done in the executive branch by unelected officials. I suppose any theory based on politicians wanting to preserve their authority is similarly vulnerable.

            Really, my initial point was not so much that it’s true that the 17th amendment hurt federalism, but that it’s plausible that it did. And to the extent someone things that federalism is beneficial to liberty, it’s plausible for that person to believe that the 17th amendment was harmful to that end.

            As for your second sentence, I assume you didn’t mean to say that all discussions of successful constitutional amendments are pointless or off limits, or that “If the people want it, it must be good”. But if that’s not your point, what is?

          • CJColucci

            If you’re not making a claim that the “theory” is true, then I don’t suppose we have much of a quarrel — though even the claim that it is “plausible” seems to require some justification beyond a shrug. It is not at all obvious that the theory is even plausible, so some account seems called for.
            As for the relevance of actual history and what the people want to all of this, there is a noisy group of advocates for repealing the 17th amendment. If they want to indulge such quixotic fantasies, well, there’s no accounting for taste and to each their own. But when the best argument on offer is “that’s how it used to be,” then “but we’ve already decided we didn’t like it” will do until the advocates come up with something better.

      • Jerome Bigge

        The people of the state elect both their state government and their senators. Who are supposed to represent them. Your senators are elected by only those who live in the state that is represented. What is the difference between the people of a state electing their senators and electing their state government?

  • eccentric-opinion

    The suggestion that libertarianism would be imposed by coercion is a strange one – the idea behind many justifications of libertarianism is that it’s non-coercive. Some think it fails to be coercive in some situations where coercion would be appropriate.
    But there is something to public reason liberalism. When you’re in government, don’t seize a power that you wouldn’t want your enemies to use against you when they’re inevitably eventually elected. In culture wars, be honest, don’t go after people personally, promote open discourse, and oppose uncivilized people regardless of the side they’re on, because if you’re nasty to your enemies and your enemies are nasty to you, that’s worse for everyone. Most generally, don’t use weapons you don’t want your enemies to use.

  • IEIUNUS

    “Forcibly imposing strict, extensive property rights on non-libertarians cannot be publicly justified.”

    What are lenient, narrow property rights? And, are these forcibly imposable on anyone?

    Also, to be picky with wording, I believe you mean “Forcibly imposing strict, extensive property rights on [anyone] cannot be publicly justified.” Otherwise, the sentence reads as though it is justifiable to enforce property rights on libertarians only, but not anyone else. Though, I do not believe that is what you mean.

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  • Fabian_Wendt

    So libertarianism and PRL answer different questions (‘what institutions are just’ vs ‘what institutions allow us to live on moral and peaceful terms when there is disagreement about what just institutions would be’). But what is striking is that their answers seem to be quite similar, on your view, right? Given that ‘little coercion can be publicly justified to libertarians’, there is a ‘classical liberal tilt’ in the principle of public justification (as Gaus puts in in OPR). So is it first order libertarianism, second order classical liberalism, in the end? Ain’t this coincidence somewhat similar to what many find suspicious about Rawlsian public reason liberalism (namely that public justification is said to lead to results that one likes anyway)? 😉 Could nonetheless be correct that there is such a coincidence, of course…

  • Craig J. Bolton

    “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.”

    I will order your book on this topic, since I believe that you are clearly right that conventional libertarianism puts too little emphasis on the procedural dimension of civil society. To know that X is certainly “right” tells us nothing at all about the permissible ways to get from where we are to X or what we do about people who don’t concur in our conclusion that X is right.

    The problem I have with the above brief essay is that you seem to make that point with one hand and then take it away with the other (as is illustrated by the quotation above from your essay). Perhaps we simply disagree about the extent to which particular public policies can be objectively demonstrated to be coercive or noncoercive and you are working on some implicit premise about natural property rights?

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