Apologia Pro Libertarianism Sua

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There’s been a bit of discussion about the nature of libertarianism on the blog recently, and as the resident pseudo-libertarian, I thought I would re-state where I come down on the matter (this is based largely on an older post I did on the subject, which sadly is now lost in the cyber-ether).

To understand where I am coming from, one needs to make a distinction between political positions held as a matter of moral principle, and those held as a matter of prudence. Take the issue of torture. One might oppose the use of torture on the grounds that it’s not a good way to get information from suspects, or because by using torture on the enemy you risk retaliation by the enemy on your people, etc. Alternatively one might believe that torture is just immoral, and you should do it regardless of whether or not it is effective.

Call the first type of objection to torture “pragmatic” and the second “principled.” (A person might object to torture on both pragmatic and principled grounds, in which case the opposition would be principled, though buttressed by pragmatic considerations). Dividing the justifications for various political positions into principled or pragmatic can be sometimes tricky, but the basic idea is, I hope, intuitive enough.

A principled libertarian, as I use the term, is someone who holds libertarian political beliefs for principled reasons. Taxation is theft, my body, my business, etc. In my experience, when you say libertarian this is what people think of.

Most principled libertarian arguments are, in my opinion, quite bad. Indeed, back in the day I considered myself something of an anti-libertarian, and enjoyed poking holes in the faulty logic of such arguments.

There is, however, another tradition of libertarianism that is largely pragmatic. Milton Friedman was of this school, as was Hayek. A pragmatic libertarian generally accepts the legitimacy of government intervention as a means to achieve valuable social ends, and he may even agree with progressives or socialists or whomever about the desirability of the ends sought to be achieved. It’s just that in most cases he believes government intervention is not an effective means of achieving that end. There’s nothing wrong in principle with bleeding a patient in order to cure them of some disease except for the (admittedly important) fact that it doesn’t actually work (and will often make things worse). If there is a difference between pragmatic libertarians and non-libertarians when it comes to ends, it is that pragmatic libertarians sometimes suspect that others secretly value government intervention as an end in itself, and that the talk of all the great benefits of intervention is just a rationalization (this, thought, mind you, is usually restricted to one’s less charitable moments).

It should also be noted that pragmatic libertarianism is not an all or nothing thing. Unless one is an anarchist, one must accept the desirability of government action in some areas, and if it turns out that some of these areas don’t fit neatly within the realm of the nightwatchman state of classical liberalism, this needn’t shake the pragmatic libertarian to his core.

As should be obvious from my description, my brand of libertarianism is almost entirely pragmatic. I do think that there are some areas that should be beyond the reach of the state, but in terms of most political debates in modern America these limits typically don’t come into play.

Does this mean that I am not a “true libertarian”? I would argue no, folks like Hayek and Friedman have as much claim to the name libertarian as do devotees of Murrary Rothbard. But frankly I don’t really care that much. Fundamentally I view arguments about whether position X or Y are “really” libertarian to be along the lines of arguing about whether X or Y are “really” conservative. It can be fun to argue about, but at the end of the day I’d rather talk about whether X or Y are correct than whether they fall under a particular political label.

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  1. Excellent, the “will the bloody duck swim?” test – it is, really, the best. As it turns out, most conservative things do work, and most of the time a libertarian attitude towards government power is for the best…but, not all the time and not in all things.

  2. BA,

    With your (very helpful) post as the context, how might you articulate the difference between “principled conservatism” and “pragmatic libertarianism”? Your post prompted me to realize that I tend to identify political positions with their fundamental principles, but clearly not everyone does so. Nonetheless… why not just call yourself a conservative?

  3. BA,

    I’m thinking of conservatism as it’s been articulated by the likes of Kirk, Weaver, etc…. generally-limited intervention by the government, determined along the lines of subsidiarity, etc.

  4. BA – answer Burgwald’s point/question first before responding to my random thoughts below.

    Chris’ comments relates to the tension between ideology vs. pragmatism. Was Reagan good (or great) because he was an ideologue or a pragmatist? I would argue the latter, as was other good Presidents, i.e. Nixon, Eisenhower, etc.

    More specifically related to your topic though and what came immediately to mind are the differences between the Mises Inst. and Cato Inst. The Mises Inst. (i.e. Murray Rothbard, Walter Block, etc.) & were/are the ideologues and the folks at Cato & Reason are pragmatists.

    Is Conservative American Political Party’s Two Pillars Strategy based upon the later? I would argue it is. Others would argue it’s not possible for a third party to gain sufficient support therefore it’s the former.


    The deeper or more fundamental question for me though is this – Which is true or what is true? Orthodoxy precedes Orthopraxis. Action based upon false or bad principles will eventually fail or not succeed. What are presuppositions and assumptions driving people’s thought and actions? If their world and life view is flawed, so will be their actions. I much prefer truth over error.

    Culturally it’s very American to focus on pragmatism. Focus on utility, focus on what works. This is the very essence of Scientology, but is Scientology true?

    I might add just because you can do it doesn’t mean it’s good.

    Anarchism is a completely different topic. It’s one that I will study more deeply. For the life of me at the moment I don’t see the reasonableness of it, but I want to read the best thinkers for anarchism before I make a judgment. Most Libertarians are probably minarchists, but is this the truest position to hold as a Libertarian? I don’t know…

  5. Chris,

    I confess I haven’t found Kirk or Weaver to be very helpful in thinking about politics. Kirk is too impressionistic, and Weaver thinks that today’s problems are the result of philosophical errors made in the 12th century.

    In terms of why I stopped calling myself a conservative, there are a couple of factors. One is that I became increasingly uncomfortable with a lot of what was being espoused by American conservativism (e.g. defenses of torture, jingoism, xenophobia, etc.) Even where I agreed with the “conservative” position on an issue, it increasingly seemed as if I and your typical conservative doing so for very different reasons.

  6. BA,

    I concur on your last point… I don’t think I’d be considered a “movement conservative”. But that’s because of my preference for identifying political labels according to principles rather than pragmatic approaches… I don’t think “movement conservatism” is being true to conservative principles, but I don’t eschew the label “conservative” with regard to myself because of it.

    But that’s me… as already noted, your post was helpful for me in that it alerted me to the fact that others might identify political labels differently.

  7. I don’t think “movement conservatism” is being true to conservative principles

    I took a similar line for a while, but eventually I had to conclude that the tendencies I was seeing weren’t deviations from “true” conservatism but were pretty much baked in the cake from the beginning. If anything it’s Kirk who was the oddball.

    Oh: I tend to think Weaver is right, by the way.

    A lot of people do. For myself, reading Occam pretty much robbed me of the ability to take Weaver seriously.

  8. “Weaver thinks that today’s problems are the result of philosophical errors made in the 12th century.”

    To quote Wellington, anyone who would believe that would believe anything. Today’s problems have the same root cause as yesterday’s problems and tomorrow’s problems: original sin. Ideas Have Consequences is still a great book to read, as long as one doesn’t take it much more seriously than Das Kapital as a philosophical tract.

  9. I’ll make a confession: I don’t know the specifics of Weaver’s arguments…. but perhaps he is right for the wrong reasons, because I certainly agree with the thesis that there is a faulty intellectual foundation to much of our contemporary discourse, a foundation which goes back to Ockham, and probably Scotus before him. Perhaps Weaver’s specific argument is weak, but he’s hardly alone in his conclusion: the Radical Orthodoxy school concurs, as do a number of the Communio scholars, along with a large chunk of Thomists.

    Benedict (a member of the Communio circle) certainly seems to indicate an agreement with his thesis, given the Regensberg address, in which his rightly notes the impact which late medieval theology & philosophy’s voluntarism has had on modernity.

    It’s clear that concepts might work themselves out and have “real-world” ramifications centuries or even millenia later… we see this positively with ancient greek philosophy and with the intellectual content of our own faith, but it’s just as possible for wrong ideas to work themselves out over similarly long periods of time.

  10. Chris,

    I dated a Scotus scholar for a while after the Regensberg lecture. When I mentioned the controversy surrounding the speech she thought I was talking about the Scotus part. She hadn’t heard about the Islam rioting, but thought what Benedict said about Scotus was an unfair distortion.

  11. BA,

    And…? 🙂

    I don’t doubt that the voluntarism that came forth from Scotus’ thought was far from his intention, but unintended consequences and all…

    I don’t expect a Scotus scholar to agree with this view, but given that it’s one held in common by various Augustinians, Bonaventurians and Thomists indicates that there’s *some* consensus among various schools regarding the ill fruit of Scotism on this point.

  12. Is Ron Paul pragmatic?

    His voting record is one of the most ideological driven in the entire Congress, but he’s a Republican. I think he learned from his experience(s) when he ran as the third-party candidate (Libertarian Party) for President. Did he make a bigger impact by running as a Presidential candidate as a Republican? What kind of impact will he make as the Chairman of the sub-committee which oversees the Fed. Reserve? Will he run again for President, either as a Republican or third-party candidate, i.e. Conservative American Political Party? Many of the same folks who are supporting this new party and funding the below movie are huge Ron Paul supporters as well. Let us see.


    Is the Free State Project pragmatic?

    Many argue that the Non-Aggression Axiom is the principle which drives Libertarian thinking. Is it true?

    Audio – The Lew Rockwell Show – 11. The Non-Aggression Axiom

    The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism by Walter Block

    Jonah Goldberg and the Libertarian Axiom on Non-Aggression by Walter Block

    Defending the Undefendable (a more detailed book on this axiom) by Walter Block
    F.A. Hayek agreed, writing the author as follows: “Looking through Defending the Undefendable made me feel that I was once more exposed to the shock therapy by which, more than fifty years ago, the late Ludwig von Mises converted me to a consistent free market position. Some may find it too strong a medicine, but it will still do them good even if they hate it. A real understanding of economics demands that one disabuses oneself of many dear prejudices and illusions. Popular fallacies in economic frequently express themselves in unfounded prejudices against other occupations, and showing the falsity of these stereotypes you are doing a real services, although you will not make yourself more popular with the majority.”

  13. David,

    In American politics pragmatic is typically used to describe a politician who does whatever is popular with the voters. That’s not what I mean. In other parts of the world being pragmatic means evaluating policies on their merits.

    I do not subscribe to the non-aggression axiom. Like many political principles it sounds nice in the abstract but when you look at the implications it is not clear why anyone would believe it.

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