Saturday, November 20, 2004

Libertarian Name-Calling

UPDATED 11/25/04

There's a bit of a dust-up about whether libertarians are really liberals of the original variety. Will Wilkinson at Crescat Sententia has the story:

John Phillips, a Ph.D. student in political theory at Brown, has some interesting thoughts on Samuel Freeman's arguments that libertarians aren't bona fide liberals.

Here's my take: If libertarianism just is the view that the state has no legitimacy and that agents of the state have no justifiable moral permission to use their powers of coercion AND the very concept of liberalism contains (in the Kantian sense) the idea of state legitimacy and permissible coercion by state agents, well, then of course libertarianism isn't a kind of liberalism.

But I don't think a political conception has to deny the legitimacy of the state or permissible coercion by state agents to count as libertarian. People think that I am a libertarian because I think that the state should be very small and limited in its powers, not that I think that there should be no state, or that coercion is never justified. There are, of course, libertarians who think coercion is never justified, and so conclude that there should be no state, but that's just the content of one conception of 'libertarianism.' That's not the concept. Negative income tax Friedmanites are also libertarians. Additionally, I don't think the connection between liberalism and state legitimacy, coercion, etc., is anything close to analytic. If there is an anarchic social order that fulfills substantive liberal ideals better than a state-based order, then that order should count as liberal.

I don't think that a view about the conferral of legitimacy on state coercion through democratic means is a part of the substantive content of the concept of liberalism, although it is obviously a huge part of liberal conceptions such as Freeman's. Coercive democracy, in my view, is, at best, a contingent means to liberal ends. At far less than its worst, it is inconsistent with liberal ends.

Timothy Sandefur at Freespace has an Objectivist take:
...I associate liberalism with “dynamism” as the term is used in The Future And Its Enemies, and I would define the term as referring to the political view that individuals should be liberated from the coercive restraints imposed by others, as I explained in an old post on “What is Libertarianism.”

But dividing libertarianism from liberalism is probably misleading and unhelpful, something like dividing Christians from Catholics. There are certainly non-Catholics who would regard Catholics as not real Christians, but the Catholics would hardly concur. But on the other hand, as a hardline “classical liberal,” I regard the paleoconservatives who masquerade as libertarians over at Lew to be a bunch of frauds, and not real libertarians, on the grounds that a true libertarian should put individual liberty as the primary political goal, while they believe that if one person wishes to enslave another, no third man may interfere. The problem is not that they’re libertarians while we’re liberals or something like that. It’s that we libertarians are liberals, while they are really conservatives who don’t like the drug laws. (But, of course, if some foreign dictator wished to have drug laws, that would be fine with them.)

Unfortunately, "liberal" and "liberalism" have long since come to be identified with a world-view that has nothing to do with classical liberalism or libertarianism (of any stripe). It's a statist and internally inconsistent world-view that goes something like this: I believe in individual liberty (i.e., the right to do as I please with my money and my life), but the world will be a much better place if government does certain things to restrict and even undermine freedom (e.g., ban smoking, take money from those who earn it and give money to those who don't, force children to go to inferior schools by taxing their parents for the privilege, spend less on defense, negotiate with enemies who have amply demonstrated their bad faith).

I know that it's de rigeur for libertarians to call themselves liberals (of the classical variety), but I will not call myself one. Given the bad connotations of "liberal" and "liberalism" , I'd rather call myself a "misogynistic homophobe" or a "tree-hugging enviro-nut" -- neither of which am I.

Wilkinson has more to say:

I want to clarify that the post below [quoted above: ED] on the question, Are Libertarians Liberals?, was a spontaneous riff off what John Phillips was saying, and not a considered response to the Samuel Freeman paper John was thinking about. John's post conjured a phantom interlocuter who I decided to argue against. Now that I've looked again at the Freeman essay ("Illiberal Libertarians" in Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 2), I see that most of what I said doesn't apply to Freeman's particular argument. Freeman reserves the label 'libertarian' for natural rights anarchists and minimal statists such as Nozick, Rothbard, and Rand. He labels Hayek, Buchanan, and Friedman as 'classical liberals.' And classical liberals, along with Freeman's 'high liberals', are naturally enough kinds of liberals. He's arguing, among other things, that natural rights anarchists and minarchists have no room for an account of legislative authority or political legitimacy, which he takes to be necessary conditions of liberalism.

I'll say more about Freeman's very interesting (and long!) paper later. But for now let me say I think there is (a) some tendentiousness or at least arbitrariness in the way Freeman decides to characterize the nature of liberalism, (b) perhaps room for legislative authority for some natural rights minimal statists, (c) more complexity in the minarchist's notion of contracting and the adjudicatory function of state courts than Freeman makes it out, which may solve most of the problems he thinks you get without legislative authority, and (d) confusion in the way he attempts to apply the idea of the "political" to anarchists.

In any case, in Freeman's terms, I am a classical liberal, not a libertarian, my current views being a frothy stew of Hayek, Buchanan, Coase, Schelling, Rawls, Gauthier, Vernon Smith, and Douglass North. But in the vernacular that just makes me a libertarian.

Me too.

"Natural rights anarchists" and "minarchists" should call themselves just that. As the saying goes, liberty isn't anarchy. Therefore, anarchism isn't libertarianism.

Tom W. Bell at Agoraphilia has a somewhat different take:

...I will not...agree to let [leftists] appropriate "liberal." The derivation and near-universal meaning of that word—in nearly every time and place except contemporary, casual U.S. speech—reserves "liberal" for people who regard liberty as a paramount value. Leftists, because they disparage economic freedom and property rights, manifestly do not.

We have very accurate and fair labels for people who think that civil liberties exist independent of and merit more respect than economic liberties. We can call those people "leftist" or "left-wing." Moreover, we should not call them "liberal," a term that they neither deserve nor that they always welcome.

I am not sure that true liberals will ever be able to reclaim their rightful name. At a minimum, though, they can and should deny the term to illiberals. It would represent a great step forward if, when someone in the U.S. used "liberal," they had immediately to address the question, "Do you mean 'left-wing' or do you mean 'libertarian'?" We should thus aim, at least at first, to cast "liberal" into a linguistic no-man's-land. Reconquering that lost semantic territory can come later....
"Liberal" and "liberalism" are beyond salvation. From now on, I'll stick with "leftist" and "the left" when I refer to regressives and their agenda. That includes so-called moderate Democrats, who have revealed their disdain for liberty by belonging to the party of Social Security, Medicare, unionism, and affirmative action.