Libertarianism Not an Ideology

IOZ (whose identity is apparently a mystery) sums up a recent debate that’s been brewing on several of the blogs I frequent:

Kerry Howley PhotoWhen Kerry Howley made the irrefutable and yet quixotic point that any proper concern with liberty, whether practical or, ahem, merely philosophical, must grapple with the strictures of cultural mores and social conventions, for they affect the lives and freedom of those individuals with whose liberty libertarianism supposedly concerns itself equally to and sometimes more than the official acts and proscriptions and promulgations of the government-même, I made no comment, because honestly, this again? I like and respect Kerry. She is probably smarter than I am. I am sure she looks better in heels. Her efforts along these lines are perhaps noble, but nonetheless doomed.

It is not so much that they lack merit–on the merits, she is correct–as that they make a sort of category error. The problem is not that many libertarians are unwilling to consider the broader implications of their philosophy, but rather, that libertarianism is not a philosophy, not even a “political ideology,” as the more careful bet-hedgers might have it.

It is instead a lame, purely American third-party movement that sometimes appropriates the trappings of ideology in order to justify self-perpetuation in the face of a plurality-takes-all electoral system wholely inimical to minor parties. In reality, it is no more an ideology, let alone a philosophy, than is “Democrat” or “Republican.” It is moderately more consistent than either major American political party because it has no constituency. In the absence of a coalition, coherence. This is nothing to brag about.

That about covers it.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Define libertarianism.

  2. odograph says:

    Twin studies suggest that it could include (but not be limited to) a genetic bias.

  3. JustRuss IT1(SW) USN [retired] says:

    Libertarian is basically any fiscally conservative, socially liberal non-Dem/Rep. The government needs to stay out of my bedroom and out of my wallet.

    Being a Libertarian does not mean I will vote for libertarian candidates unless their ideals align with mine. Simply because no two libertarians are alike.

    If you wish I will redefine myself as a Constitutional Conservative. Stick to the documents the way they were intended.

    The Republicans more often align with my values than do the Democrats but I would still vote for the right democrat candidate.

    In the end, we don’t care what Democrats and Republicans say Libertarian is or is not, does or does not, we know who we are and don’t care about your labels.

    BTW:

    Vote for Hoffman!
    Palin Rocks!

  4. odograph says:

    Maybe I should expand a bit on why I find the twin studies interesting. Identical twins, raised separately, are found to have a higher correlation in party registration than fraternal twins, raised separately.

    The traditional mode of political argument, “I’m right and you are wrong,” makes more than a little assumption that we arrived at our positions by some cognitive process. If to some degree we were born with one outlook or another, surely we have to look differently at our opponents.

    We’d be kind of jerks to say that they were “wrong” because they have a higher or lower bias for individuality, for instance.

    … and we’d be far more advanced if we found solutions that “work for” the natural distribution of citizens and their outlooks.

  5. C.Red says:

    Libertarianism, as opposed to the Libertarian Party, is an ideal in the same way that Communism is an an ideal. It supposes that the individual will be the ultimate authority and that by each individual providing for and regulating themselves that a general social contract will be maintained.

    Where it fails is that it pre supposes that every individual will behave rationally and honestly. To make it workable you have to have resources plentiful enough that anyone can exploit them and no centralized administration (corporate/government/theological) to interfere.

    This was somewhat workable in the American ‘frontier’ before the 1850s or so and that is where we get our current legacy of it, but it really is not workable in today’s society.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I would have thought libertarianism would have been constituted in some form with the idea of liberty, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Libertarians seems to desire less, not more government at all levels. Libertarians tend to not want to be involved in the affairs of other nations to the degree they might be called isolationists

  7. sam says:

    Define libertarianism.

    Well, I once read someone who said that a perfect picture of a libertarian is that of a nine-year old, all drawn up, arms crossed, chin out, saying, “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do!”

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Sam, what is wrong with that. If you are a responsible person, no one should have, or have the right or power to tell you what to do. Did your ancestors immigrate here to be ordered about? Taxed into the poor house? Told what to buy and when? Told how much money they could make? Did your ancestors move here to free themselves from oppression?

  9. odograph says:

    Human beings clearly have individual natures and group natures. We are a social species. Everyone, even the most libertarian is social. It’s hard to see because it is the ocean through which we all swim.

    I think people who call themselves libertarian are just on the less group-oriented end of the human scale. Those who call themselves socialist are out there at the more group-oriented end.

    If anyone were looking at us from the vantage of a truly individualist species (one that comes together only to mate) or a truly collective species (naked mole rats) would probably see libertarians and socialists as essentially the same thing.

    It’s just that we perceive small differences as large. It’s a perspective problem.

  10. Furhead says:

    Sam, what is wrong with that. If you are a responsible person, no one should have, or have the right or power to tell you what to do.

    That sounds all well and good, but who decides whether you are a responsible person?

  11. An Interested Party says:

    Vote for Hoffman!
    Palin Rocks!

    Oh, so libertarians are for losers, spoilers, and quitters…thanks for clearing that up…

  12. sam says:

    Did your ancestors move here to free themselves from oppression?

    Actually, the family story is that they were Scot-Irish horse thieves one step ahead of the constabulary. It’s said, though, that they claimed they were freeing others from the oppression of having to feed all those horses.

  13. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Sam, where were these vast herds of horses held? It certainly was not in the UK.

  14. sam says:

    Oh, I guess the Light Brigade was riding sheep at Balaclava. Jesus, Zels, get edikated, ok?

  15. the Q says:

    Mr. Ragshaft,

    Your point of , “what is wrong with that. If you are a responsible person, no one should have, or have the right or power to tell you what to do” is basically very naive, selfish and infantile

    Ever hear of the tragedy of the commons?

    Lets say there is a 10 acre “common” which is shared by 10 Shepards each with 10 sheep and each Shepard is doing well.

    Each of them believes that by following his own rational self interest his utility can be increased by adding one extra sheep to his flock.

    Each individual shepard arrives at this conclusion simultaneously and adds a sheep to his flock.

    The ensuing overgrazing destroys the commons, the sheep starve and so do the shepards.

    Through the individual action of each shepard, (while rational and seemingly responsible) the collective suffers, therefore there must be some overarching mechanism whereby society can prevent individual actions from destroying the common good.

    Hence, my hatred of Republican conservative dogma which sacrifices on its altar of greed and selfishness any notion of the common good and describes this as “socialism” or “obama fascism”.

    Lets say FDR didn’t ration gas (inter alia) or otherwise tax the shyte out of millionaires to finance the war and we followed the, “why can’t I drive whenever I want without the stupid government restricting my freedom just so we can beat the stupid Nazis”, perhaps Mr. Ragshaft we would all be “spreken ze deutsche” right about now.

  16. Dodd says:

    No, that doesn’t cover it. He’s talking about big-L Libertarianism, the clown shoes and big red noses version of right-of-center third party politics. Sort of the PeTA of the right-wing.

    But small-l libertarianism is very much a political ideology. It isn’t as monolithic as he glibly makes it out to be, either; there’s plenty of variation on specifics at the margins. But it all boils down to belief in a government the powers of which in either economic or social spheres are limited and defined.

  17. James Joyner says:

    But small-l libertarianism is very much a political ideology. It isn’t as monolithic as he glibly makes it out to be, either; there’s plenty of variation on specifics at the margins. But it all boils down to belief in a government the powers of which in either economic or social spheres are limited and defined.

    Yes, I agree. Hell, I’m a small-l libertarian. Or, at least, have a strong libertarian streak.

  18. sam says:

    Yes, I agree. Hell, I’m a small-l libertarian. Or, at least, have a strong libertarian streak.

    Depending on topic, who the hell isn’t?

  19. Anderson says:

    Unsurprisingly, the woman in the discussion JJ links (i.e., Howley) is the one concerned that oppression ain’t just something the government does.

    The contributions of government to liberty over the past 200 years have been considerable, particularly when one thinks of “liberty” as something women and nonwhites might care to enjoy, but I guess we’re supposed to ignore that.

  20. Steve Verdon says:

    The contributions of government to liberty over the past 200 years have been considerable, particularly when one thinks of “liberty” as something women and nonwhites might care to enjoy, but I guess we’re supposed to ignore that.

    But lets not forget that government, at first, did not grant “liberty” to women and non-whites.

  21. […] James Joyner on Ioz’s post: That about covers it. […]

  22. Anderson says:

    Governments do not “grant” liberty. They recognize it or fail to recognize it.

    In failing to do so, they are typically no better than the people who constitute them.

    Liberal governments, however, have made greater progress in recognizing, and promoting, liberty over the past 200 years, than had been made in the past. (Using “liberal” in the broad sense wherein Locke, Smith, and Keynes fit comfortably ‘neath the umbrella.)

  23. Steve Verdon says:

    Governments do not “grant” liberty. They recognize it or fail to recognize it.

    This sounds like semantic nonsense to me. The U.S. “recognized” the liberty of women and thereby “granted” to them all rights enumerated under the Constitution. Whatever.