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On reclaiming libertarianism

” Half of the libertarians seem to have gone entirely off the rails… a very vocal half. Fiddle around reading “libertarian” websites and you’ll find all sorts of bizarre things: neo-Confederate denunciations of Lincoln, 9-11 Trutherism, anti-vaccine nonsense, climate change denialism, idiosyncratic “theories” of mental illness, apologia for Putin, arguments for the moral equivalence of Nazi Germany-United States-Israel, and (especially) rabid, blind rage against anyone who dares offer a counterargument. A sensible person, wondering what libertarianism is all about and trying to find whether it offers anything of value, would be so put off by this stuff that they’d forswear libertarianism as a kind of madness. (This isn’t hypothetical — decent people occasionally ask me how I can be associated with such craziness.) So right when the world most needs ’em, libertarians are going bonkers.”

Charles Steele, at his Unforseen Contingencies blog.

Hmmmm. I agree with much of this although it is worth repeating that being a skeptic about the claims made for catastrophic man-made global warming is not the same as being some sort of incorrigible “denier”.

I would also add something else. Libertarianism is no different from any other secular or for that matter, religious creed in having its fair share of nutters, heretics or those who say or do things that are just plain embarrassing. But even nutters can say or do things that open up debates that more “reasonable” people shy away from. Consider just how shockingly radical Mrs Thatcher’s brand of conservatism was made to appear 30 years ago, for example.

Long ago, I learned to stop worrying about this so long as the core message of respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness came shining through and so long as the majority of people who held such views seemed to be, and were, decent people. The problems start when that does not happen.

26 comments to On reclaiming libertarianism

  • Alisa

    All this just goes to show something that I’ve been saying for a long time to anyone willing to listen (and sometimes otherwise): stay away from labels, and stick to ideas. When people ask me ‘are you a libertarian/capitalist/objectivist/you name it’, I answer ‘none of the above – I am Alisa.’ Ideally I’d like to answer ‘I’m an individualist’, but too many people don’t get that…

  • Tedd

    Good point, Alisa.

    Also, I have to think that Steele is being a bit disingenuous. I read lots of libertarian-leaning blogs, and I find the kind of thing he’s talking about extremely rare, other than some healthy CAGW skepticism. I admit that I rarely visit the anarcho-syndicalist blogs; perhaps that’s where he’s finding most of this stuff?

  • From my own perspective a lot of the paranoids fear governments and think that Libertarians are the same. They equate or denial that governments are always the answer to their fear of government.

    For myself, the true mark of a libertarian is a solid understanding of the non-aggression principle including both people, society and state.

    By and large, if they don’t accept that, then they are probably nutters waving a Libertarian flag.

  • Laird

    I suspect that because libertarians are essentially individualists (viz Alisa), capable of critical, independent thinking rather than simply following the herd, a lot of people with out-of-the-mainstream ideas find a home here. In other words, I suspect that we do attract more than our share of “nutters”. I suppose that could turn off someone casually googling “libertarian” to find out what the movement is about, but as Tedd suggests most of those ideas are on non-mainstream libertarian sites. Anyone truly searching for knowledge about libertarianism (and not merely seeking “sound bites” to villify us) would likely find his way to the core libertarian sites and would find what we’re really about (the non-aggression principle, personal responsibility, limited government, etc.). He would also find that there’s a wide range of ideas within this tent, which should be a selling point, not a reason for criticism.

  • veryretired

    I was told in no uncertain terms on this very site a few years back that I was not a true libertarian by He Who Decides Who Is Or Isn’t A Libertarian, so that question was settled long ago.

    I would have been crushed and suicidal at this revelation, except I had decided the same thing myself a long time ago when I realized the formal Libertarian Party in the US was a bunch of intolerant, lock-step ideologues who had no hope of ever becoming a significant political force in the country.

    When asked, I describe myself as a radical individualist, mainly because the term “classical liberal” is lost on the uneducated, which is most everyone misinformed by the current educational monstrosity that public education has become.

    (off topic, I watched an interesting movie the other day called “For Greater Glory” about Mexico in the 1920’s. I’d be interested in anyone else’s reactions.)

    I guess I’d be more concerned about all the nutters if I gave a crap about what other people think, but I passed that mile marker on the highway of life a long, long time ago.

  • AKM

    I usually use the term “classic liberal” or “what the French would call ultra-liberal” as libertarian covers too broad a range of opinion. Then I immediately move to what that means; that I believe in maximizing individual liberty and that the state should engage in only a minimal range of tasks.

  • Stonyground

    I don’t see climate change, or global warming, denial even on blogs like Bishop Hill and WUWT. None of the so called deniers actually deny that climate change happens and that we are presently enjoying a warming trend. Many are sceptical about the degree to which this is man made, and the highly expensive Cnut like efforts to stop it. Many are sceptical about the panic over impending Thermogeddon. None, as far as I am aware, are in any kind of denial.

  • Personally, I find the best answer to the question “What is a Libertarian” is to say “Me”.

    This has the upside of being true, but varies with the individual.

    Your mileage may vary.

  • Robbo

    “This isn’t hypothetical — decent people occasionally ask me how I can be associated with such craziness.”

    The answer is that you are not associating with the crazies, it is they who are associating with you.

  • PeterT

    If I tell people I’m libertarian I usually get asked what book is getting borrowed the most at the moment.

    I’m not sure “we” are very well recognised as an ideological group, even by the relatively educated.

  • Paul Marks

    “I am Alisa” is good enough. Ditto Very Retired’s reply.

    I used to get very upset about self described libertarians comming out with real gut evil things.

    However, I am (sadly) used to it now.

    After all – why do we not win?

    The case for private property and the nonaggression principle is overwhelming – so why do we not win?

    Because we get undermined from the inside.

    By people who attack private property (if it is large scale).

    And by people who blame everything on the Jews.

    And people who think that Putin is cool.

    And – well they are all the same people really.

    And it was much the same in the past.

    After all (as some modern people gloatingly point out) leading American “pro liberty – anti government” people in the 19th century came out with…….

    Pro monetary crank stuff (zero interest rates – create more money, from nothing, and we will be rich).

    Anti private property in land (at least on any useful scale) stuff.

    Pro “collective bargaining” (occupations, pickets – the lot) stuff.

    Pro racism stuff.

    And on and on.

    With “friends” like these the suprise is that colllectivism did not 100% win (indeed win ten times over).

    Short version.

    “If liberty is so much more efficient (as well as more moral) than collectivism – why has it been long on the retreat?”

    Because even the people who say they are pro liberty and anti collectivism – often are not. They have just redefined the words – to give support to the very collectivism they claim to oppose.

  • lucklucky

    “I don’t see climate change, or global warming, denial even on blogs like Bishop Hill and WUWT.”

    Climate change is a weasel word that means AGW and with a capability to fall back to pure climate change in a typical orwellian newspeak when convenient to the user.

    I certainly see denial of global warming in WUWT. i am one that post in comments section. And i write there no one ever come with solid evidence of Global Warming. 0.x degree difference in a badly measured earth can prove anything. Btw what was the evolution of earth temperature at 1000 altitude in last 100 years. Answer that if you can…

  • Trespassers W

    Where the hell is he hanging out? I’ve seen plenty of rational climate skepticism and some justified, non-neo-Confederate Lincoln-bashing (he should get a pass for suspending habeas corpus, or for conscription?). If anything, actually lunatic, indefensible ideas are largely rejected; Truthers and anti-vacciners are viciously mocked (do they even still exist?)

    This is off the mark in my experience.

  • Allan Ripley

    I am personally mostly tolerant of people who call themselves Libertarians even though some of that libertarianism seems to hsve gushed up out of a well of fear. They have at least recognized that there might be something else beside The Two (in the US, at least). I am now not a follower of the Lincoln religion mostly prevalent here, and I put nothing nefarious beyond the reach of the political class, but all my children got their shots on time and I am generally sarisfied with the technological advances we have made over the years. When I bump up against the fearful Libertarians, I try to pull them down to a calmer state by citing the demonstrable failings of the current system without dismissing their more extravagent fears out of hand.

    Alisa has a good method, but I tend to go the other way. Since I spend (too) much of my time commenting in the local Letters to the Editor, I am generally under pretty heavy attack of the personal insult type. Instead of avoidng lables, I spell out all the lables I prefer to be insulted for: Libertarian, Rothbaridan anarcho-capitalist, free-market maven, Free American, Christian, Human. It lends a little variety to the insult mix and, in any event, I don’t care. Anyone is free to prove me wrong, at which time I’ll change my labels. But until then, I am satisfied with my world-view and don’t actually require validation by any one else.

    I am pleased to see that many don’t consider Libertarianism to be another of the many secular religions that have popped up over time and I am especially pleased when someone would allow themselves to be labled Libertarian, even if their economics, political philosophy, and general outlook may not meet the high standards of The LvM Institute and others I particularly favor. it starts first in the person. Education follows.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Charles Steele describes pretty well my original impression of libertarianism; except that I did not think that half of them have gone off the rails: I used to think that all of them have always been off the rails. (My current position is that roughly half of them have always been off the rails.)

    Alisa’s position has its advantages but also drawbacks. For one thing, if you do not label yourself, then somebody else might do it for you. Another problem is that I’d like to know where I fit in, though that might be more than a single intellectual tradition.

    I used to call myself liberal, or classical liberal when the qualification is needed. Then I read bits of On Liberty and decided that I did not want to associate with JS Mill either.

    Since both Locke and Hayek called themselves Whigs, I guess that label will do for me. However I think of myself as a realist first, and a Whig or individualist as a rather distant second. Maybe I’ll write an essay on the principles of Whig realism at some point, even if I end up being the only person to read it.

  • Alisa

    Alan: I like your tactic, although to me it does sound like a rather cleverer version of mine:-)

    Snorri: they will label you no matter what you do – it’s a given – if not by assining you a label of their own, then by redefining the label you assigned to yourself. Just look at the current crisis: everyone *knows* that it’s a failure of the Capitalist system.

    And, what Paul Marks said.

  • Tedd

    My first direct contact with Libertarianism was way back in my early teens, when a Libertarian Party candidate came to my school for an all-candidates meeting. I remember thinking at the time that he was a crackpot, and perhaps he was (I don’t remember anything specific that he said).

    Some years later, though, I worked with an Objectivist libertarian who was very thoughtful and rational. He inspired me to read Atlas Shrugged. (I had already read The Fountainhead, but hadn’t really gotten the gist of Rand’s message, yet.) I never drank the Objectivist Kool-Aid — not all of it, anyway — but I had to admit that his very rational outlook made a lot of sense to me, and inspired me to think more deeply about my political ideas.

    I think it’s probably safe to say that I’m still more of a classical liberal than a libertarian. But, like Alisa, I rarely describe myself by any such label, other than occasionally here on Samizdata. Mostly, I try to e-prime my way out of such statements.

  • Andrew

    I find people who consider themselves ‘real’ libertarians (and thus dismissive of those they feel fall short of their standards) are usually rabid about one or two libertarian issues but then inconsistent on what most others think equally important. By which I mean; like most political belief systems, it covers a lot of ground, and so it’s not very helpful for people to make statments like he/she is not a libertarian, often while foaming at the mouth (vrirtually or otherwise). There’s several regularly posting in the comments on this blog who are guilty of this… I agree that it should be more about core values.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Alisa: sure they can re-label me, but then I can say: how can you call me libertarian!! (or: conservative) I am a Whig realist!
    If they claim that’s a distinction without a difference, I can sneer that if they don’t see the difference, then there is no point in discussing it any further.
    To redefine Whig realism will be pretty difficult as long as I am the only one claiming the label. Again, I can sneer if they try that.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Well, it’s not as though others haven’t felt the same way at times.

    George Orwell (who was a Socialist) once wrote “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”

  • veryretired

    When I was younger, I probably would have expressed a belief in just about anything if it meant some nudist, sex maniac types would drift my way (of the feminine persuasion, please).

    These days, SWMBO kinda frowns on that sort of thing, don’t ya know…

  • Alisa

    Snorri: a label that is too obscure is not really a label, the whole point of labeling being to let the world know that you are associated with a certain political/philosophical “brand”. Redefining Whig Realism is certainly more difficult than redefining Libertarianism, but not nearly as difficult as redefining Alisa or Snorri – although, granted, the latter may not justify as much sneering:-)

  • Snorri Godhi

    Alisa: as a matter of fact, Snorri Godhi is defined quite sharply in Eyrbyggja Saga. (Think Machiavelli, only more cynical.)

  • I actually wanted to post the comment below, but it would be nice if the blogger had a captcha that you could actually read:

    “I’m not going to contest your definition of `climate-change denialism’ and so on, but would you care to provide links to the so-called libertarian blogs that you consider have gone off the rails in the ways you describe?

    I’m not terribly active in the blog-o-spere but that doesn’t characterize my experience with the libertarian blogs that I read – Samizdata, the Volokh Conspiracy, reason.com…?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong but some proof here, no?”

  • Alisa

    Someone should tell Google about that, Snorri…

  • Paul Marks

    I suspect I know one of the websites the person quoted it post is complaining about – a British one.

    Not that I would stupid enough to waste some of what remains of my life in flame wars there – no not me……

    Paul bangs his head slowly, and painfully, against the wall.