Lately I’ve been thinking about the libertarian movement’s diversity. If it’s even meaningful to discuss a libertarian “movement,” because it’s such a huge tent, I can demarcate different strains of thought, and address some of the shortcomings and strengths of different libertarian ideas.
There are different stages of maturity in libertarian thought. I will arbitrarily break them down into three stages, though this is of course a messy continuum. Although many folks borrow reasoning from each stage, I’ve noticed a common trajectory in which libertarians shift on what kind of reasoning they primarily rely. The three stages are:
- Deontological heuristics
- Consequentialist empiricism
Objectivism and Rothbardian anarchism would fit into the first stage. Both Rand and Rothbard offered a broad framework for assessing many different topics in the realm of human behavior. These bodies of work embody pure ideology to the extent that ideology is a way of filtering information to make it comprehensible. The world is complex, and Randian and Rothbardian explanations and moral prescriptions function as a solid first approximation of ethics and politics. Yes, self-interest drives many positive things, but it’s not an end in itself. Anarchism is not a priori the only moral political structure. Other forms of anarchism could exist in the next two stages, but deontological anarchism exists here.
Perhaps the key hazard of this first stage is for a devotee to become familiar enough with the framework so as to think they’re an expert on a wide variety of topics. A parallel mechanism from behavioral economics is instructive here. The research on heuristics and biases from Kahneman and Tversky, and now many others, reveals that humans don’t use reason to seek truth; instead, we rely on heuristics, probably developed as evolutionary adaptations. This isn’t necessarily a flaw. The cognitive economy is an economy of scarce resources. Rather than expending the mental resources to assess probabilities accurately with Bayes’ Theorem, heuristics are a valuable shortcut that allow us to approximate posterior probabilities without much effort. The problem is that heuristics so often lead us astray, and we often deviate wildly from Bayes’ Theorem.
Strict adherence to a purportedly all-encompassing deontological philosophy is myopic. Some libertarians suppose that they can use a principle of non-aggression to address every ethical issue, but it’s not true. What is aggression? What counts as an initiation of force? A system of private property is actually a coercive system. It depends on the moral willingness to use violence to exclude the use of private properties. Private property must eventually be defended on more sophisticated, consequentialist grounds.
The second stage is characterized by striving for consistency. What principles and arguments fit together to eliminate, or at least minimize, contradictions? Free markets imply free trade and free labor markets. The legality of alcohol implies the legality of marijuana.
In the second stage, developing such coherent arguments is a positive development, but leaves the student open to political and social naïveté. The trap is believing that powerful logic and reasoning is all that’s needed to convince smart and interested people, or even politicians. Especially in the realm of politics, people are irrational.
The third stage is a mature kind of consequentialist empiricism. I don’t mean psychological empiricism; nativism is backed by the scientific consensus. I just mean that this mature position is characterized by considering the consequences of policies by rationally assessing the costs and benefits. A Hayekian rule utilitarianism is crucial. Some criticize utilitarianism as a methodology concerned with aggregates of individuals, but I don’t think that’s true. Hayekian rule utilitarianism is properly construed broadly, and wouldn’t prescribe that someone donate as much as they can to starving orphans. The more important way to maximize utility is to have institutions that allow people to maximize utility. A rule governing a population has a much larger effect than any individual action. Bill Gates wouldn’t be a billionaire without the existence of functioning markets.
This third stage has a focus on structure. Understanding public choice limits well-intentioned but misguided diversions of resources, such as supporting particular politicians or voting.
My goal in sketching all this out is to help facilitate for people the trajectory toward the third stage, or corroborate with people who are already there.