Thursday, January 10, 2008

Beware the Libertarian Label

Timothy Sandefur has a fantastic post "What will libertarians learn from the Ron Paul fiasco?"

A great point he highlights is that there is deep division in the libertarian movement: "the neo-Confederates at the Mises Institute on one hand, and what James Kirchik calls “the urbane libertarians who staff the Cato Institute or the libertines at Reason magazine” on the other."
Kirchik is the The New Republic author that recently published an article detailing the often racist and anti-semitic content of newsletters that went out under Paul's name in the 80s and 90s. (Yes, there is some dispute about the authorship of these newsletters, but Paul doesn't deny granting permission to publish them under his name.)
Sandefur argues, and I agree, that the neo-confederate/paleo-conservative camp are not really libertarians. Of course, that side would argue that we are the ones who are not libertarians. There are real philosophical differences about the understanding of morality, individuals, the role of the state, and so on. So what to do? Sandefur hopes for a reformation of sorts: "a straightforward confrontation with complicated and challenging issues."

Maybe this whole Ron Paul hoopla will get people to think about these differences and where they stand on them. I began to think about them after 9/11 when I saw so many who claimed the label libertarian saying such foreign things about the causes of 9/11 and what our response should be. I also have met libertarians over the years who do not seem to have a deep understanding of or serious commitment to liberty. They are libertarians primarily on the basis of being anti-authority. I call them the let-me-smoke-my-pot libertarians. Yes they want government out of their lives, but not on a consistent principle and so end up supporting statist plans in other areas of politics.

This doesn't mean that there are not some committed, principled libertarians who do understand the importance of individual liberty and the proper role of the government. Most Objectivists get it -- though there are plenty of division there as well. Most of the folks at Cato get it most of the time. Reason Mag on its best days gets it too -- but since Postrel left Reason it's gone way down hill. (Read Postrel take Reason to task for missing the boat on Paul.)

The moral of the story: Beware the label libertarian. It has come to be a meaningless term that doesn't tell you anything useful about the beliefs of an individual.


Unknown said...

True, but better to say, "Beware ALL labels". Intellectual labels are always hijacked by others and in doing so, the meaning changes. The label "Libertarian" originated because of the need for a new label to describe a particular philosophy. Whatever label you choose to use will fail you if it ever becomes well known enough for others (who think differently than you) to co-opt it. So: Beware ALL labels.


Shawn Klein said...

Adam...thanks for the comment. You are quite right: Beware all labels!

Still, when sufficiently qualified, they can be useful.