Friday, June 13, 2008

Libertarian strategy and the ideological climate

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my post on Will Wilkinson’s proposal for liberal/libertarian alliance drew some interest. My thanks to Will Wilkinson for his response, and to Robert Kaercher for making it one of the links of the day when he was guest editor at Strike the Root.

I’ll probably have some more thoughts on this later, but for now I just want to hit a main point and give a small clarification.. In his response, Will wrote:

I’m not interested in “repudiating” libertarianism’s more radical left-leaning strands — I have a lot of sympathy with elements of Long, Johnson, and Carson’s philosophies.

Here I think I may have written sloppily in my previous post. When I spoke of “repudiating” the more radical strands of libertarian thought, I meant Will’s remarks about the likes of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard in his previous post, when he wrote:

Misean economics, disinfected of the open-minded empirical consequentialism of Mises’ Liberalism, and filtered through Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard’s peculiar views of rights and coercion delivers a powerfully moralized brief for capitalism that calls into question even taxation for the purpose of financing genuine public goods. That Rothbardians and Randians have wasted so much time fighting with each other on the question of the minimal state versus anarcho-capitalism obscures their unity on a rights-based bulwark against the slide from the welfare state to socialism. Sadly, “libertarianism” has become identified rather strongly with this ideology — an ideology some of the thinkers most strongly identified with libertarianism, like Hayek and Friedman, never shared.

I didn’t mean left-libertarianism specifically, although modern left-libertarianism does have a lot of Rothbard in it. I find the reference to “the open-minded empirical consequentialism of Mises’ Liberalism” somewhat odd. While Ludwig von Mises was certainly a consequentialist, he was renowned/notorious for his refusal to give an inch on politics; whatever the ethical grounding of his political beliefs, in terms of willingness to accept aspects of left-liberalism in ideology or compromise on policy he had more in common with Rothbard and Rand than with Hayek and Friedman.

While I disagree with Will on the underlying principle of the issue, which I might touch on more later- I don’t think coercive transfer payments can be squared with libertarianism, and I think they would tend to corrode the foundations of a classical liberal government- I think our disagreement here has more to with issues of strategy. More specifically, he seems more hopeful about the prospects for meaningful positive change now or in the relatively near future than I am. He writes:

I am interested in promoting a tendency of thought and a set of policy reforms that I think will, as a matter of fact, make people better off.

I agree with this. I differ in that I don’t think, at this moment in time, that positive policy changes beyond very small nibblings at the national state are a plausible outcome, or that any positive change that did occur would be durable, or that libertarians are currently numerous or influential enough to matter politically in any case. I’m far more interested in, as Will puts it, promoting a tendency of thought, which I think is more likely to be achieved by presenting a “purist” libertarianism that is sharply defined from other ideologies, and which will give libertarian efforts a better chance of producing lasting gains by pushing towards an ideological climate where such gains will be possible.

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