July 2016

The recent Libertarian Party convention saw a sharp disagreement about exactly how libertarians ought to sell their ideas to the public. One type of activist might ask: Shouldn’t libertarian activism make room for the eccentric? Don’t we value experiments in living, and shouldn’t we… well… show it? Another type of activist might ask: Why don’t we put our most convincing foot forward? Why not try to reach the public, so that we can win elections and get our policy initiatives enacted? And don’t we have a significant – maybe neglected – case to make to the “normals”?

Both of these positions might to some degree be torn apart, and that’s what we propose to do this month, in a civil and thoughtful manner, with a group of activists who have faced the question professionally in a variety of venues: Professor Gary Chartier writes the lead essay, recommending that the movement remain open to diversity as a reflection of a more than merely political commitment to freedom; response authors will include Daniel Bier of the Foundation for Economic Education, Matt Welch of Reason magazine, and Timothy P. Carney of the Washington Examiner and the American Enterprise Institute.

Discussion and comments will be active through the month, and we welcome you to share your thoughts.

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Lead Essay

  • Prof. Gary Chartier praises the libertarian movement as a refuge for the eccentric, and for diverse experiments in living. From John Stuart Mill’s invention of that phrase down to the present day, libertarians have aimed to be the change they wish to see in the world — and quite often that means living an out-of-the-mainstream life. Chartier relates the tensions of modern-day libertarian activism to the familiar debate about “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism, in which the latter looks only at political freedom, while the former takes relatively more seriously the chains of social convention.

Response Essays

  • Daniel Bier welcomes a culture of freedom, but he warns that one key aspect of freedom is the ability to form associations based on shared norms, values, and procedures. Without the ability to form such associations, the social value of experiments in living will be much diminished, if it may even be said to exist at all. A radically uninhibited society will be unable to capture this value. Bier closes with a passage from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia in which Nozick praises the ability to form, dissolve, join, and leave communities that may have radically different values. This, the framework for utopia, may be called tolerant, but it does not impose a universal permissiveness.

  • Matt Welch looks at just what makes a political movement want to police its boundaries. He finds nothing wrong with telegenic, “normal”-seeming libertarians making the case as persuasively as possible before a national audience. But he also suggests that the history of weirdness in the libertarian movement… isn’t so weird at all, not when we consider how weird America itself actually is. All the American misfits out there may soon find that there’s a big tent that’s been ready and waiting for them. As old intra-libertarian infighting recedes in importance, a coalition of the squares and the freaks may take its place.

  • Timothy P. Carney asks whether traditional lifestyles are also welcome in the libertarian tent — or is it only the “alternative” ones? Carney distinguishes between cultural pluralism, which crafts policy so that people may craft their own rules for life, and cultural liberalism, which would impose liberal values on everyone, including those who desire to practice personally conservative ways of life. Libertarianism is at a crossroads, he argues; it now must choose between these two paradigms. Embracing cultural liberalism will alienate conservatives and may significantly shrink the never terribly large libertarian tent.

Related at Cato

Cato Unbound: Libertarianism, Past and Prospects,” March 2007, with Brian Doherty, Brink Lindsey, Tyler Cowen, Virginia Postrel, and Tom G. Palmer; “Brain, Belief, and Politics,” September 2011, with Michael Shermer, Joe Carter, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Ronald Bailey; and “Where Next? The Past, Present and Future of Classical Liberalism,” with Matt Zwolinski, John Tomasi, Roderick T. Long, David Friedman, and Alexander McCobin.

Podcast:The Cato Institute and the Libertarian Movement,” with Edward H. Crane, May 4, 2015.