The claim that there is such a thing as “pure libertarianism” should puzzle you. What is the definition of “pure libertarianism?” Do we find that definition in Rothbard? Nozick? Hayek? Mises? Rand? Which Rothbard? Nobody’s views are intertemporally consistent. If they were, our views wouldn’t evolve. The answer can only boil down to a definition which equals exactly what you believe “pure libertarianism” is, because you are going to choose between alternatives based on what you agree with. That seems a bit shallow.
Within some range, “pure libertarianism” will inevitably be impure. Few libertarians would doubt Roderick Long’s libertarian credentials, even though he prefers virtue ethics over a certain brand of deontology. Okay, Long avoids the term “capitalism” (according to his Wikipedia entry), so maybe Long is not a “pure libertarian.” But, no serious academic holds a identical set of beliefs with another. There is always some degree of reasonable disagreement. You cannot define a “pure libertarianism” without defining yourself as irrelevant, because the only “pure libertarian” will be you.
If you accept that there is a range of beliefs that can be considered libertarian, how do we determine that range of “reasonableness” (is that a word?)? Mises — except that government nonsense, but it’s okay, because it’s Mises1 —, plus Rothbard, plus Hoppe? Do we exclude Hayek, Buchanan, Friedman,2 Nozick, Gaus (?),…? Surely, you cannot define the range by what is generally agreeable to you, because that defeats the purpose of having a range of reasonable disagreement. You would have a difficult time arguing that Stiglitz’ political views ought to be considered libertarian. Hayek, though? How could the views of one of the most influential academics on libertarian thought not be considered reasonable in the debate on what libertarianism is? It would, of course, be just as absurd the other way around. How could Rothbard’s views not be considered libertarian?
The point I’m making is that any determinant definition of “pure libertarianism” is arbitrary, in that it requires the person writing the definition to choose based on her own judgment. Where is this authority derived from? What if there is some chance that she’s wrong? There is no way to even know whether we believe in “pure libertarianism,” because “pure libertarianism” is impossible to define with certainty. The concept is empty.
So far, most of you may agree with me. But, I don’t want you to agree with me. I want to give you a headache. I am going to take another step forward, making the strong claim that libertarianism as a political philosophy is too exclusive to be useful.
The limits to what is libertarianism will always be arbitrary. But, if we leave those limits up for debate, I think that debate is easier to solve than the one over “pure libertarianism.” At least, we have a fuzzy border around libertarianism. For example, it’s clear that Krugman is not a libertarian. But, Buchanan is — at least, his ideas can directly inform libertarianism. But, here, libertarianism defines only a narrow group of reasonable beliefs over the right institutions of governance. There are reasonable non-libertarian beliefs, as well.
If a group of people join into a division-of-labor, they will have to develop an arbitration process (whether planned or spontaneously) to settle disputes. There will be several orders of rules. Personal defense associations, for example, will appeal to a higher order of rules to settle inter-association disputes. If you are an anarchist who believes that people will settle into communities with more-or-less consistent political views, you should still recognize that people will want to associate with others outside of their community — there are gains from trade by extending the division of labor. People of different communities may come into disputes against each other, and there will need to be a process by which these disputes — where there are two conflicting set of rules — are solved. Let’s call the highest order of rules, and the process by which these rules emerge, the meta-process.
How do rules emerge out of the meta-process. Maybe a dictator is the final word of the law. That doesn’t seem very appealing. Imposing Rothbardian deontology would be dictatorship, because most people would want a completely different set of meta-rules. Further, we have no way of knowing if Rothbardian deontology is right, and we want the meta-process to at least evolve over time, so that its rules can improve. Because we know that there is a range of reasonable opinion on what kind of rules there should be, the process of rule-making should consider a plurality of opinion.
The people governed by the meta-rules will include libertarians, but libertarians are a minority of the total population. Reasonable debate would need to include reasonable non-libertarian beliefs. The meta-process would be a liberal one. It’s hard for me to accept the possibility of both agreeing with the public reason approach and believe in a libertarian political philosophy. Public reason is extremely attractive, because it is consistent with heterogeneity of beliefs and pluralism (i.e. liberalism); maybe a libertarian political philosophy does not make much sense. Libertarianism can’t even describe the ideal society, because if societies include non-libertarians then the rules, in a voluntary society, will be, at least in part, non-libertarian. Public reason leads to compromise, not unanimous consent in favor of one of the extremes.
The libertarian has some preference set on meta-rules. But, you can’t advocate an overarching philosophy of a just political process that requires either belief homogeneity or coercion of the non-believers. Well, I suppose you could. But, calling that philosophy one of “liberty” should raise eyebrows. Libertarianism, then, is not useful at all for the purpose of helping us achieve a free society. But, (public reason) liberalism can. I agree that this might lead us to other uncomfortable conclusions, but that’s no reason to reject my argument. Of course, the catch in believing that there is some probability (0 < p < 1) that a belief is wrong is, well…that your beliefs can be wrong. So, prove me wrong!
- I guess Mises’ “partisan biases” don’t matter.
- Both Milton and David. Pure libertarianism might require two points. You earn one point for being an anarchist, which David is. You earn another point for being an Austrian. Sorry David. And Milton might as well be Stalin.