Monday, September 7, 2009

My Libertarianism

Over at The Daily Dish, Jim Manzi has an interesting post on the two strains of libertarianism that he sees, libertarianism-as-means and libertarianism-as-goal (as he dubs them).  The two aren't mutually exclusive, but, when pressed, he suggests that libertarians will tend to fall into one camp or another.  He says he's a means guy.  I'm definitely a goals guy (if I were to be classified as a libertarian).

I should probably clarify; the way Mr. Manzi describes them, I can't, for my political philosophy, separate the two.

I think the problem that I have shoe-horning myself into Mr. Manzi's paradigm is that I don't think I see the same goal as he does.  Libertarianism-as-means is perfectly useful for developing efficient government, and economic and social well-being.  Federalism, subsidiarity, "laboratories of democracy" - these will help lead to the best outcomes for most political/social questions.  In this sense, I'm squarely on board with Mr. Manzi.  Libertarianism-as-means is the better method for determining political outcomes.  Freedom for freedom's sake (which is how I believe Mr. Manzi is defining libertarianism-as-goal - and I should mention that he admits these to be somewhat cartoonish descriptions) is no grand wonderland.

However, in the manner that I approach libertarianism (or, at least, my version of libertarianism), freedom for freedom's sake isn't freedom for freedom's sake.  Libertarianism as a goal is not libertarianism as an ends.  Further, the optimum set of social and economic outcomes is not the ultimate goal either.  The ultimate goal of the human experiment should not be measured on some macro level, where the welfare of all people is optimized (however you happen to measure that).  The ultimate goal resides at the individual level and it has nothing to do with economic success or social status... in fact, it has nothing to do with freedom.

When I first started this blog, the little tag line underneath the title was a fairly purple sentence about going Galt, metaphorically.  A while later, I changed it to the current, Without Choice, There Can Be No Virtue.  This idea, which I do not claim to be particularly original, has come back to me again and again.  It has come to me when I have thought about my political philosophy, when I have thought about social conventions, when I have thought about my faith.  When trying to determine if I fell more in the libertarian camp or more in the conservative camp, it has been this idea that has guided me (and is the reason that I can't fully commit to either).  For this is the goal, the chance at virtue.  Virtue cannot be legislated; it cannot be lectured; it cannot be imposed.  People can be led to virtue, but they must choose to follow (and they must choose not to be led astray).

(I realize that the introduction of my faith might be a complete turn off for many, and could have numerous libertarians shunning me from libertarian society - I read far more libertarians who reference their atheism than reference their faith - but my political philosophy, though not derived from my faith, cannot be completely separated.  All that being said, I am perfectly willing to defend my political views on grounds other than faith, and, in fact, feel that it is imperative that I do so.)

For me, libertarianism-as-goal equates to an opportunity at virtue for all.  This transcends the ordering of society.  Economic outcomes do not, intrinsically, play into this.  Mr. Manzi's advocacy for libertarianism-as-means is a fantastic argument for a political/economic/social system that deals with everything up to, but not including, virtue; however, I cannot support an ordering of society that cares not at all for the virtue of its citizens.

An advocate of libertarianism-as-means could easily shoot back that the creation of the virtuous citizenry will result in the creation of a virtuous society, consequently, libertarianism-as-goal (as it applies to me) is still libertarianism-as-means, i.e. by offering the choice, we get the best result.  The argument has some merit, but it just doesn't quite jive with me.  Any grand society that virtuous people create is merely a benefit.  The goal resides at the individual level.  It would be a little simplistic to suggest that I am arguing that it is better to suffer in freedom than to prosper in oppression, but it's not that far off.  The prosperity of an individual might be greater in the latter, but the prosperity as an individual would exist only in the former.  It is this prosperity that I most cherish.


  1. Thanks for the really interesting commentary.

    I'll make a more aggressive vesion of your point. Pure liberty-as-means libertarianism is inherely amoral. It views human (again in cartoon terms) organization as an extension of Darwinian competition, in whihc survial and reproduction is all that matters. Nobody is purely one kind of libertarian or the other.

    Here's a quick test, though. Should Salt Lake City be permitted to make prostitution illegal? Should New York City be allowed to severely restrict the ownership of handguns? Not are either of these a good or bad idea, but is it a legitimate use of power?

    Thanks again,

  2. Fascinating and always interesting. One question, though: Do you really think that subsidiarity serves libertarian interests?

  3. Richard, that's a good question. Upon initial reflection, I'm not sure it does. However, that wouldn't mean, necessarily, that libertarianism doesn't require subsidiarity. I've long since resigned myself to the notion that so many things I hold dear and believe in won't be embraced by the masses, so I'm certainly prepared to see my "philosophy" crushed under its own prescriptions.

    Jim, thanks for the comment and questions. Quick answers to the questions, yes, I would say that both are legitimate uses of power - or, at least, potentially good uses of power; context might matter (though the New York City handgun question has constitutional implications that I am not really prepared to address - so in answering, I'm ignoring the 2nd Amendment).

    However, I'm not particularly confident in my answers right now. The original post from The Daily Dish really spurred me to think about my inclinations, so my post was really me thinking through my position rather than offering a clear declaration.

    Both of your questions, Jim and Richard, will help me define my political philosophy. I think I'll save a thorough response for another post... at a time that I've had a chance to really mull everything over.

    Thanks again for the comments.

  4. Jon, in our age of quick turnaround and rapid response, your measured and thoughtful reply is refreshing. And your recognition that there are more questions to ponder than answers to give is the sign of true wisdom.

    Defining the contours and content of one's own political philosophy is kind of like mastering golf: you never quite reach the point of complete satisfaction because it is an ever-evolving enterprise in which one is always adjusting, refining and tweaking.