The Clouded Ideology of Libertarianism

The Clouded Ideology of Libertarianism

Like many others, I discovered Ayn Rand in high school and converted to libertarianism with a true believer’s zeal. I remained a libertarian for over a decade. My exit from libertarianism was comparably much more gradual. By reading broadly and meeting a lot of sharp friends from other ideological backgrounds, I slowly updated my values, my policy preferences, and the thinkers and institutions I respected most until a holistic look revealed there just wasn’t much that was recognizably libertarian remaining. Of course, it didn’t happen so dispassionately and I did reach a stark breaking point. The 2016 election for US president featured a shameless, racist, misogynist, authoritarian populist squaring off against a totally typical politician. Where I saw a clear and present danger to core democratic norms as well as to the common welfare, libertarians seemed to collectively yawn. To be sure, most libertarians (probably) didn’t like Trump, but they equated Trump’s shortcomings with the two-party system, with the failings of democracy, and otherwise with “the system.” In short libertarians were on the whole pretty useless against an actual authoritarian threat. This was a feather that broke the camel’s back, as far as my libertarianism was concerned.

For a long stretch of my intellectual development I was an anarcho-capitalist, and I believed government of any sort was illegitimate. Now, I believe the state is the inevitable location of necessary political organization, and is not uniquely evil or oppressive, but merely one source of a particular kind of power: the monopoly on violent coercion. Like all power, state power  is potentially dangerous, but in the best of cases it can be a counterweight against other sources of power and potential oppression, whether those are family, tribe, church, city, or corporation. I believe social justice is not only a coherent idea but a morally necessary aim, and that social justice requires us to pay special attention to racialized persons, women, and other historically oppressed groups. I believe a welfare state is laudable, and that taxes, even high taxes, are necessary to pay for it. I believe collective action coordinated by democratic institutions are necessary to address collective problems like global warming. In short, I believe freedom means more than non-interference. Instead, freedom can only be understood in the context of social practices and institutions, and that relations of equality and effective powers to act are at least as important as non-interference.

For someone like me, the question is whether to try to reform libertarianism or exit it altogether. I chose to leave, seeing little worth saving after 2016. But would reform have been the better choice? How much closer to the core libertarian tradition would I have had to remain in order to continue carrying that label, with all its associations?

It is useful to look at Jacob T. Levy, a professor of political theory and political science at McGill University who affirms a worldview reasonably close to my own. He does self-identify as a libertarian. In a recent piece for the Niskanen Center, he argued that that institution’s flirtation with the “moderate” label is vacuous and misguided. While recognizing the unsavory associations of the “libertarian” label, he nonetheless suggests there are enough intellectual resources available to make such an identification worthwhile. On the contrary, I think Levy’s approach to ideology is just as confusing as going in for a vacuous term like “moderate.”

I am, no doubt, a somewhat heterodox libertarian, and partly because I do share the commitment to Montesquieuian moderation. I can give a reasonably concise statement of my heterodoxy. I’m a libertarian who thinks that taking libertarian commitments seriously entails a more thoroughgoing critique of racial injustice and encourages a closer embrace of democracy than has been usual. I think, for reasons well defended by my Niskanen colleagues many times, that liberal markets and open trade should be accompanied by social insurance of various kinds; this is a modification of rather than an entailment from basic libertarian ideas. And I think that preventing catastrophic climate change calls for more radical action than could be justified on even a loose interpretation of libertarian ideas, though preferably action that works with markets rather than against them, such as a carbon tax. For the political theorists in the audience, I could add as a methodological matter that state-of-nature thinking, social contractarianism, and anarchism are dead ends and should be replaced by a Smithian-Hayekian realist theory of politics. But in terms of actual politics, I can describe where I am in about a hundred words, using “libertarian” as the baseline, and politically well-informed people will have a pretty good sense of what it amounts to.

If I weren’t more familiar with Levy’s work—I’ve read his two brilliant books, a couple of his academic articles, and am an avid follower of his online writing—then I would still be very confused, or simply wrong, about his comprehensive beliefs and values based on the quoted passage plus the libertarian starting point. The first substantive point Levy makes is by his admission heterodox: “libertarianism” entails a more thoroughgoing critique of racial injustice. But how? Why? I thought social justice was a mirage and seeing and thinking in terms of race was collectivism (I’m restricting myself here to the non-deplorable half of libertarians)? What does racial justice have to do with property rights or the Non-Aggression Principle? Don’t both of those support a right of the individual to discriminate on the basis of race? A lot more words would be needed to take the average Libertarian Party member or non-libertarian who has read Rand or Reason magazine from their basic understanding of libertarianism to the considerable nuance of Levyite ‘libertarianism.’ And that’s just the first major point in his sketch. Similar confusion would arise and need addressing from the other departures he mentions, like his endorsement of the welfare state and his embrace of democracy as a core value and institution and not merely something that (maybe) must be lived with.

Moreover, any number of other baselines would seem to work just as well, including the small-r republicanism he repudiates in the piece. It seems like one could get a lot of mileage in Levy’s direction just starting from the essential republican value of freedom as non-domination (on some formulations; think of Philip Pettit’s republicanism). The separation of powers in republicanism can stretch to include Levy’s idea that fertile conditions for individual liberty are found in the agonistic struggles between central authorities and the various intermediate groups and powers, governmental and non-governmental. Add a generous helping of enthusiasm for private commerce and we’re already 90% of the way there. In any case it doesn’t seem like it would take any more “moves” in idea space to get to Levy starting from republicanism than from libertarianism.

But I think the idea of starting with a baseline ideology and then adding and subtracting ideas is not clarifying. Instead, imagine a political ideology as a word cloud, with a few categories, like central figures, principles/values, and a miscellany of slogans, policies, heuristics and so on. Take central figures in libertarianism. Different people will come up with different lists, but a lot of the same names will keep cropping up: Rand, Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek. Levy will claim one of the above, that being Hayek. A similar list of primary influences on Jacob Levy might run like this: Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Augustine, Nancy Rosenblum, Judith Shklar, and Hayek. Only one of these is generally recognized as a libertarian (yes, many libertarians are fond of Smith, but most everyone else is too). But perhaps that doesn’t mean much, since we all have different influences and one central figure might be enough.

What about principles and values? A plausible libertarian word cloud might include the following: freedom, property, non-aggression principle, anarchism, minarchism, capitalism, free trade. Here’s a list for Levy: freedom, rule of law, democracy, federalism, pluralism, commerce, diversity, racial justice, and—while I don’t recall him using the word, I think it fits—feminism. There’s certainly more overlap here. Freedom of course, but also capitalism and free trade are probably equivalent to commerce, and libertarians can claim rule of law as well, though that has a bit of a motherhood and apple pie appeal. But the differences are stark. Diversity, racial justice, and feminism cannot plausibly appear anywhere in a libertarian word cloud, while Levy is hostile to anarchism and rejects the notion that non-aggression can be an axiomatic principle.

Here’s a miscellaneous libertarian word cloud: Austrian economics, Chicago school economics, taxation is theft, spontaneous order, absolutist property rights, antistatism, antiwar, hostility to democracy, public choice economics, drug decriminalization, anti-welfare, open borders. Of course, the last one swings the other way as well, as many libertarians view welfare and freedom of association as intrinsically at odds with freedom of movement and hate the former more than they like the latter, and indeed some libertarians are outright hostile to immigrants. This word cloud is otherwise more mixed than the previous two clouds, as Levy certainly speaks up for various libertarian policy preferences. But at the higher level of institutions, Levy would seem to have little truck with other libertarians, as he views property rights as at least to a large degree instrumental and contingent, he views the state and the power to tax as uncontroversially legitimate, and he endorses partisan democracy.

There is little overlap between Levyite and libertarian associative word clouds and what overlap there is could likely be matched by rival ideologies, even modern progressive liberalism (an exercise I’ll leave for the reader). Identifying as a libertarian produces as much heat and smoke as it does light. But of course, labels are imperfect and no label would fit Levy perfectly. And perhaps there is value to positioning oneself for maximal impact. Levy has a libertarian audience and is likely well-placed to nudge some subset of libertarianism into wiser directions. But, at least to some extent, we can choose our labels and the expected audiences that might come with them. And there is reason for skepticism that libertarians—those well-described by the associative method above—are the best targets of Levy’s particular brand of liberalism

Featured image is a word cloud constructed using the Google Docs Word Cloud Add-on from the text of the Wikipedia entry on Libertarianism, accessed on 02.28.2019.