Monday, June 16, 2008

Give me libertarianism or give me...anything else

I have friends who lean Libertarian, calling themselves "closet Libertarians" or "Libertarians in basic philosophy." Most of them, being smart people, are also pragmatic and recognize that there is no real movement to the party of that name, and so, somewhat uneasily, forge a compromise between their leanings and their reality.

I'm not going to launch into a critique of libertarianism today. I understand its attraction, even have some leanings that way myself, but there are two aspects of it that cause it problems and, I believe, will prevent it from ever being a major political force (in and of itself; its influence may well be felt, for good or for bad - I'm talking about the concept of a Libertarian Party).

The two aspects actually have one root cause: Libertarianism is a philosophy. What this implies is that it is very hard to define libertarianism in the context of the real world. One needs only read the Wikipedia entry to see how up in the air it is. Even if you accept the current-day common definition, that libertarianism restricts the role of government to providing for common defense and protecting of property rights, that still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Again, this is not the post for me to look at specifics, other than to point out that most of our existing laws can be construed as protection of our property rights, depending on how we define "protection," "our," "property," and "rights."

The second problem is that our political system doesn't really accommodate pure philosophies. I'm no expert on how other countries work, so, when I read that Italy has put the Socialist party in power, I'm never really sure what that means (though I have a feeling that the multipartite structure of their government doesn't allow "pure" socialism to take hold).

Our parties are labeled Republican and Democratic, and we associate them with conservative and liberal labels, respectively, but they are far from pure. And there are liberal Republicans (though very few now) and conservative Democrats (probably a larger number), whereas it's hard to be a "kind-of" Libertarian.

There is also a personal aspect to pure libertarianism, perhaps best expressed in the Objectivism of Ayn Rand (and yet, unbeknownst to many, there are huge conflicts between Rand-ians and other libertarian movements), that is remarkably off-putting to the vast majority of Americans. We like to think of ourselves as independent actors, each wrapped in a cocoon of individual achievement, but we really aren't; there is a collective sense of what it means to be an American that is easily offended by a philosophy that is so resolutely individualistic.

I'm actually happy there are libertarians. Their ideas provide a counterweight to the power-accreting tendencies of government, and it is this push and pull which offers the best chance to achieve a balance that accomplishes the objectives of our nation. But Libertarians, as a party, I don't see that ever becoming a serious force in this country. It just runs too counter to the overall self-view of the American people.

4 comments:

Shawn Levasseur said...

"We like to think of ourselves as independent actors, each wrapped in a cocoon of individual achievement, but we really aren't; there is a collective sense of what it means to be an American that is easily offended by a philosophy that is so resolutely individualistic."

I think you are misreading libertarianism. Of course we work collectively on many things. Most things in fact.

Libertarianism isn't about setting yourself apart from everyone else. It's just about the size and scope of government. Collective action does not require government.

"The second problem is that our political system doesn't really accommodate pure philosophies."

Well, as you yourself said, what "pure" libertarianism means is up for debate.

"...there are liberal Republicans ... and conservative Democrats ..., whereas it's hard to be a "kind-of" Libertarian."

Having been to the Libertarian National Convention last month, I can assure you there are several kinds of Libertarians, and we do argue over platforms, candidates, and strategies.

Your view of the party seems to be influenced more by what could be called the purists (or as some call themselves, radicals). But there is a growing practical or reform Libertarian wing that is responsible for the recent trimming of our platform, nominating Bob Barr for president.

The Libertarian Party is a bigger tent than you may be assuming.

Greg said...

Androcass: I think you're off the mark here. The problems of the Libertarian Party aren't related to the philosophy of libertarianism. The problems are that there is too much overlap with the Democratic and Republican parties. A 'moderate' Democrat who is pro-business may espouse libertarian principles. Same thing for the 'moderate' Republican who does not try to impose a moral agenda.

In today's America, a practical libertarian is better off voting for these moderate candidates instead of standing ideologically behind the Libertarian Party. My $0.02.

Favela Cranshaw said...

Libertarianism is no more a philosophy than is republicanism or democracy.

Androcass said...

These have been great comments, and I appreciate them. In my defense, as someone who is politically aware but does not focus much attention on current thinking in libertarianism, there may be something of a branding problem here. It is possible that the people getting in the way are those who have the forum to discuss an older concept of libertarianism.

Shawn and Favela, you are actually somewhat reinforcing my point, because the evolution of libertarianism from philosophy to political practice (which I am in favor of) is not well known to the public at large; I fear the name may forever get in the way of that understanding (though it may not, I suppose). Part of the issue may be the media's reluctance to examine the full range of beliefs.

Greg, I think you're right, to some extent, but, as we saw with Clinton (the earlier one), it is possible to stake out a less-pure position quite close to the other side and succeed. What these comments are making me ponder is that libertarianism's problem is not so much being unable to find its niche as being able to convince people it's niche is somewhere other than perceived, but I need to think about this some more.

Again, thanks to all, I enjoy having to think about this some more.

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