Libertarianism or Liberty?

Brian’s book is a remarkable accomplishment and I salute him for it. It’s serious social history (although I do have a few reservations). It offers a satisfying mix of political history, biography, intellectual history and exposition, and evaluation of impact. And it’s fun to read.

Brink and Tyler have pointed out the challenges libertarians face in the first decade of the 21st century. I’ll be a bit more confrontational and start by strongly disagreeing with the conclusion to Brian’s essay, according to which

Leonard Read was right: Ultimately, we will have a libertarian world when most people want one (not to say that educated elites cannot make decent progress in a libertarian direction without prior mass support).

If that were true, liberty would certainly be doomed. (I’ll set aside – but only for the moment – the semantic distinction between a world in which people enjoy liberty and a “libertarian world.”) The claim that you can only achieve liberty when most people consciously want liberty is, in my opinion, as misguided as the claim that markets only function effectively when people understand how they work. The remarkable thing about market processes is that they economize on knowledge; they don’t require the participants to know how the system works for them to make use of it. If markets were effective at promoting coordination only if all of the participants were economists, human beings would still be living in small hunter-gatherer bands, or extinct.

At the root of what I see as Brian’s error is a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order. The latter, to the extent one should want to promote it, would be valuable not for its own sake (unless promoting political theories were one’s hobby), but solely as a means to the end of promoting liberty, the value that is at the center of libertarianism. One way to promote liberty is surely to promote libertarianism, but it’s surely also not the only way.

The question of whether one is promoting liberty or libertarianism has been with libertarians for some time. Is it “selling out” one’s principles to promote incremental moves toward liberty without announcing at the same time one’s commitment to a world completely free of coercion, or of the institutions of coercion? (I was a participant in that debate [pdf] — somewhat to my embarrassment three decades later — when I wrote several essays on the topic in various 1970s journals, including the Libertarian Forum.)

Some libertarians were unhappy admitting it (notably Murray Rothbard, who promoted a “cadre” theory of social change), but the libertarian movement can indeed be successful in promoting liberty without at the same time making libertarianism, as a consciously held doctrine of justice and political and social order, the dominant ideology of a time or place. That’s a significant sense in which libertarianism differs from other radical ideologies, which focus attention on their own ascendancy as the goal of political change. Other radical ideologues want to rule others, and therefore in order to achieve their ends, their ideology has to be the dominant one. Libertarians don’t desire to rule others, so whether our ideology is dominant or not need not be a constituent part of the strategy to achieve our goals. That’s why I think it’s a mistake to speak of “a libertarian world,” which implies a world dominated by libertarians, a prospect that doesn’t move me.

Incremental increases in liberty can undoubtedly be promoted through educational campaigns. Such campaigns can encourage people to embrace libertarianism, and thus accept the incremental changes as compatible with their libertarianism, or they can promote those incremental changes irrespective of connection to any ideology, for example, on grounds of material benefits, or even just unsystematic thinking about fairness. But while liberty can be promoted through education, it certainly cannot be achieved through education alone. Achieving liberty entails that coercion be replaced with liberty, that oppressive institutions be replaced by voluntary and cooperative institutions, that rights be defined and institutionalized, and that violations of rights be stopped. Education alone doesn’t do those things. More is needed. Depending on circumstances, “more” may include engagement in electoral politics, litigation, civil disobedience, armed resistance, building of alternative institutions, and other tactics.

That leads me to a second disagreement. Brian writes,

[W]hat all the most interesting and effective libertarian thinkers and institutions do is still in line with the Read dispensation: attempting to explain, in culture, politics, economics, or the courts, why solutions that rely on free markets and free choice are apt to have better results, and be more morally correct, than solutions that rely on central control or government action.

Let’s take one American counter example: the Institute for Justice. IJ is certainly one of the most effective libertarian institutions active in the U.S. today and education is not its primary activity; it takes action in the courts. Brian might say he covered IJ and other groups with the phrase “attempting to explain, in … the courts,” but such a subsumption of legal battles to education could be applied to all forms of conflict (we “explain” to voters when we ask for their votes, for example). A libertarian movement that relied entirely on explanation would not go very far. Someone has to take the cases to court, put the initiatives on the ballot, elect reform candidates, bring demonstrators to the street, and engage in all the other elements of political change for the cause to advance. The explainers are important mainly because they create the menu from which the political actors make their choices. But without customers who choose, the existence of the menu is meaningless.

Other common American examples of non-educational means to advance liberty include initiatives, referenda, legislation to legalize pot, state constitutional amendments to strengthen protection for rights to several property, treaties that cut or eliminate trade barriers, and on and on. If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: “Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.”

“Libertarianism” refers to the theoretical systematization (and radical extension) of a set of principles that had already emerged in practice as the grounds for human cooperation, wealth creation, and peaceful coexistence. Libertarian education does not account for the initial emergence of liberty and thus may have limited explanatory power when it comes to understanding its expansion as well. Libertarian education could not have been the necessary condition for the emergence of liberty in the first place. (Indeed, what emerges first is generally a set of liberties – emphasis on the plural, rather than a single thing, liberty.)

Libertarianism emerges from theoretical reflection on the relationship of liberty to social order and human flourishing, but is not itself the cause of that observed flourishing. Thus, political struggle is a necessary element in achieving liberty, and education is a valuable preparation for such struggle, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve liberty.

Now to a few more quibbles.

In his opening essay for this issue of Cato Unbound, Brian refers to a movement whose history was “filled with vivid, peculiar, and heroic characters with many little-understood influences on American culture.” I fear that, despite a few caveats in his book, his treatment of the periods of the mid to late 19th century and the 1960s to late 1970s is focused more on the “vivid and peculiar” than on the actually influential. For the former period, his reading ignores some of the more significant and broadly libertarian figures of the period to focus on more marginal radicals, and for the latter he relies too much for my taste on Jerome Tuccille’s colorful, impressionistic, highly personal, and rather unreliable period piece, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, which focuses on zany characters (sometimes imaginary or composite) because, well, they’re fun to read about.

Lastly, Brian states that there are two answers to “where libertarian energies ought to go from here.” One is “the very traditional answer,” i.e., education, about which I’ve made some remarks above. The second is “the very libertarian answer”: “libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to go.” I think he’s made a category error. A libertarian answer says that people have the right to direct their own energies as they choose (without violating the equal rights of others), not that they ought to do this or that with their energies. If I were to ask where I should invest my money, it would be no answer to say, “Wherever you want it to go.” And if I were to ask where I should invest my energies to promote liberty, it’s equally unresponsive to answer, “Wherever you want them to go.” The follow-up question would be, “Yes, but where should I want them to go?” To which a reasonable answer would be, “To where they will have the greatest effect.” And the final question would be, “And where is that?”

That said, a more defensible statement of what Brian is getting at is that there is no pool of “libertarian energies” subject to someone’s central control. Some people like educating (through economics classrooms, policy studies, journalism, novels, film, etc.), others litigating, others leafleting and getting signatures on petitions for ballot initiatives, still others working hard to earn money to support those efforts. In most cases, the nature of the activity will call forth the energy. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to determine where we can, each of us, have the greatest impact for liberty. Among my own activities lately, I was recently a plaintiff in a successful legal challenge to the District of Columbia’s outright ban on private ownership of firearms. I’ve also devoted substantial time to attempting to secure freedom for a young Egyptian blogger I met last year, Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman. I think the former is important because it will secure the legal right to self-defense and the latter is important because it may win freedom for one person who has been deprived of it, and at the same time set a precedent for the liberty of other Middle Eastern bloggers. Both are examples of libertarian activities that aren’t solely educational. On the other hand, I’m engaged in them because I’ve been educated in the tradition of liberty by the many people whose contributions Brian so elegantly and intelligently describes and explains in his book.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Libertarianism: Past and Prospects by Brian Doherty

    Beginning with a riff on Brink Lindsey’s appeal to the “liberaltarian” left, and David Boaz and David Kirby’s analysis of the libertarian vote, Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, notes that “realistic talk of a “libertarian voting bloc” for major parties to fight over – the idea that a double-digit percentage of Americans can be assumed to be in line with libertarian ideas – is a major miracle in libertarian movement terms.” Back in the 1970s, Doherty reports, “the notion that an explicitly libertarian institution should even seriously think about effecting real-world political change was considered – well, it was not really considered at all…” What, then, does history tell us about the best strategy for creating a more libertarian future? “The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to,” Doherty argues. “The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy.”

Response Essays

  • Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World by Brink Lindsey

    Things may look bleak for libertarians these days, but there are grounds for hope, says Cato’s vice president for research (and Cato Unbound editor) Brink Lindsey. Though few Americans self-identify as “libertarian,” there is nevertheless a deep libertarian streak in American culture and a large group of voters who say they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” In the long term, Lindsey argues, the goal for libertarians is to multiply the number of libertarians, and he concurs with Doherty in saying “let a thousand flowers bloom.” However, Lindsey argues that in the short term “what needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ voters from across the current left-right spectrum.”

  • The Paradox of Libertarianism by Tyler Cowen

    According to Marginal Revolution blogger and New York Times “Economic Scene” columnist Tyler Cowen, there have been a few truly great libertarian developments since the 1970s. However, he argues, they “also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.” Cowen argues libertarians accept this paradox, reconcile themselves to the welfare state, recognize positive liberty as more important than negative liberty, and restructure libertarianism around new threats to liberty such as global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Such a libertarianism, Cowen admits, would “run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. … Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why.”

  • An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head by Virginia Postrel

    Atlantic columnist and former Reason editor-in-chief Virgina Postrel argues: “Rather than defining ‘libertarian’ by appealing to deductive logic and so-called first principles, we can better understand the American libertarian movement as a sometimes uneasy amalgam of four distinctive yet complementary traditions, two cultural and two intellectual.” Intellectually, she points to “two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions”: the modernist Rand-Rothbard quest for certainty “as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris” and the empiricist Hayek-Friedman/Hume-Smith tradition, which “looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.” Drawing on her book The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel warns against fighting the old fights between capitalism and socialism when the real battles is between “stasism” and “dynamism.” She plumps for the possibility of an alliance of libertarian and left dynamists against stasists of all stripes, but concludes with a challenge to the left: “We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?”

The Conversation