Mar 1, 2004: Liberalism, Libertarianism, and Labels

Among those who wish to wipe coercive government from the face of the earth, a number of terms are used to describe their various philosophies. “Libertarianism”, “anarchism”, “classical liberalism”, and “anarcho-capitalism” are perhaps the best known such labels, and there are certainly more. “Libertarianism” is often used to refer to each of these movements and labels collectively, although it can be used sometimes to differentiate itself from anarchism in favor of “minarchism”. The use of the term “anarcho-capitalism” itself is an attempt to differentiate a certain sect of free-market anarchists from the “anarcho-socialists”.

Classical liberalism, in turn, is often equated with libertarianism but is apparently not preferred as a description, because it seems to refer more to an intellectual or academic tradition than to a political movement. One can conceivably be a libertarian without having a great interest in classical liberalism, and there are some who might call themselves ideologically classical liberal and yet politically conservative.

Each of these terms is occasionally brought under the umbrella of “liberalism”, a category that invites yet more confusion. To be a “liberal” in North America is to be, in fact, a leftist of some stripe, most likely a social democrat. In South America and much of the rest of the world, on the other hand, to be a “liberal” or “neo-liberal” implies that one is a capitalist or free-marketer and therefore subject to occasionally violent protest by self-described “anarchists”.

Once one enters this terminological morass, it is virtually impossible to escape. One may invent yet another label to describe one’s beliefs, but such an exercise would likely only add to the confusion. In previous essays here, we must confess to having often used such terms interchangeably while occasionally choosing one or another based on a rather subjective sense of nuance and perceived shades of meaning hopefully found in the particular words.

The negative implications of most of these labels also encourages one to mingle and not be seen with any particular term for too long. The classical liberal is a dry-as-dust academic steeped in Adam Smith. The libertarian is a libertine. The capitalist is a greedy, materialistic pig. The anarchist is a Molotov cocktail-wielding barbarian. And, most frightening of all, the liberal is a socially conscious do-gooder. Thus run the caricatures, but perhaps not always unjustified.

What lies at the root of this terminological overflow and confusion is, we suggest, an exaggerated but unstated insistence on ideological purity within the movement. Instead of focusing on the eradication of coercive government in the here and now, libertarians (whether broadly or narrowly defined) exhaust themselves on detailing the particulars of the libertarian hereafter (the post-government world) and excommunicating those who disagree in the meantime.

Unfortunately, this debate about the shape of the libertarian dream-world occurs under the guise of developing a libertarian vision, when it is precisely an escape from the two vital and intertwined tasks of acting and developing a vision. Vision is something that emerges through engaging in action and cannot be replaced by the pseudo-vision of idle speculation.

Our movement is profoundly misguided. We are measuring the cubits of heaven while sinning like sailors below. Libertarianism is detailing dispute-resolution mechanisms in its wonderful world of tomorrow but cannot even begin to face the question of what action it should take today. Were libertarians to begin to ask the question of what they might do now to bring about an order absent of coercion, the futility of such speculation would become embarrassingly apparent.

The future shape of a free society will simply not be decided by us. Humanity as we know it in ourselves and as suggested by thousands of years of history spread over thousands of miles of earth lends itself neither to prediction nor planning. This is the statist’s folly, his attempt to bring the vast diversity of life under his power with his limited and clumsy intellectual and physical instruments. How much more foolish is it for us to speculate about an order that is utterly unprecedented?

The idle theorizing and speculation that currently infects the libertarian movement provides us with a conveniently lofty position from whence we may condemn statists whilst basking in the knowledge of the superiority of the unfettered market, but for all of our detailed and practical discussions about such hard-nosed topics as privatizing security, maximizing economic productivity in a free market, creating dispute-resolution mechanisms, and God knows what else, the rest of the world knowingly smiles through our conceits.

Implicit within the innumerable and unanswerable questions they ask about welfare and social security and defense and crime in a free society lies an intuition about the utter lack of realism in libertarian thought, the understanding that for a free order–as we imagine it–to emerge, it will take more than new-fangled mechanisms and institutions and economic arrangements; it will rather first and foremost require an altogether new society operating on principles only foreshadowed by the great religions and philosophies.

Better to abandon speculation and labels for the work of creating a free society now and let our enemies give us the names.

March 1, 2004


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