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Why I’m Not 100% libertarian

Why I’m Not 100% libertarian

By: Starchild

With libertarian ideas gaining increasing exposure and support -- and clearly not a year too soon! " general awareness of what it means to be libertarian is on the rise.

Yet politics is a complex study, full of pitfalls for the unwary, including terms that mean different things to different people. The continuing ability of charismatic politicians and tyrants to con people with feel-good language (e.g. “national security”) into supporting horrific ideologies that produced the bloody communist and fascist sociopaths of the 20th century presents a stark reminder of this.
Even within the modern freedom movement, confusion often persists over distinctions as basic as the difference in meaning between the capitalized and lower case versions of the word “libertarian”.
 

A "Libertarian", in the United States, is generally considered to be someone who is a member of the Libertarian Party, or someone who is registered to vote with the Libertarian Party.Thus most Libertarians are people with strongly libertarian views, but not all people with strongly libertarian views are Libertarians.

So whether someone is a Libertarian or not is pretty cut and dried, just as it’s a simple factual matter to determine whether someone is a Democrat or a Republican, when those terms are capitalized (as with “libertarian”, it also means something different to be a “democrat” or to be “republican”).

The question of what makes someone a libertarian, however, is far trickier. And after years of thinking about this kind of stuff as an activist and dare I say movement intellectual, I've come to feel that when we ask whether someone is a libertarian or not, we are not phrasing that question quite as well as we could.

For some people, the Non-Aggression Principle has the quality of a beautiful epiphany or revelation " a kind of unifying field theory for politics and how one ought to live in society. That’s how it was for me. To this day I would describe it as the single most important idea I’ve encountered in my entire life.
 

And yet there are many self-identified libertarians who never experience this sense of the philosophy as a grand cosmic law, but still manage to reach pro-freedom stances on many different issues simply because they see that non-aggression works better.

The danger with coming to support freedom from this angle, of course, is that you’re always susceptible to supporting statism on the next issue that comes along, if somebody temporarily figures out a way to make the trains run on time (or to give them the appearance of being on time!), making it tempting to say that only those who perceive the connecting web of the Non-Aggression Principle are truly libertarian. But that would be too easy, because people who know about, understand, and support the philosophical idea of non-aggression at the heart of the libertarian philosophy do not always take more pro-freedom stands on the issues, or practice non-aggression more consistently in their lives, than those who do not.

I readily concede that while I have very strongly libertarian views on most issues, I'm not 100% libertarian myself. Forcing persons credibly accused of violating the life, liberty, or property of others to stand trial against their will is one of many scenarios in which I among many other generally libertarian-minded persons might condone the use of aggression. Committing theft or trespass in order to save your life (or someone else’s) under conditions where you know the property owner would not consent is another. And I’m not even going to get into the circumstances where I’ve failed to live up to the Non-Aggression Principle in practice.

I’m not particularly ashamed however, because during my time in the freedom movement I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who claims to consistently advocate and follow the Non-Aggression Principle and uphold it as the best course of action in every hypothetical situation.

This realization that virtually no one is 100% libertarian got me thinking about when and how we should use the label. Is it legitimate to call someone libertarian who believes that public policy should be based on the Non-Aggression Principle in 99% of all cases? How about 95%? 90%? 80%? 60%? 51%? It seems to me that no threshold of this sort can be chosen which would not be arbitrary.

So while I understand that saying "so-and-so is a libertarian" or "so-and-so is not a libertarian" is a convenient form of shorthand which has its appropriate uses, I contend that it is not technically accurate. When used injudiciously, I think it can be counter-productive.

Why does this matter? What's wrong with saying "Joe is a libertarian"? After all, we might say "Joe is a happy person" if Joe seems generally content and cheerful in his life, and accept this as a legitimate statement even if we know Joe gets very sad or angry from time to time.

I believe it matters for several reasons. Almost everyone has at least somewhat libertarian views on some issues, and behaves in a libertarian manner in his or her personal life at least some of the time. I have an even tougher time imagining someone being 0% libertarian than I have imagining someone being 100% libertarian! Yet when we say someone is not a libertarian, we are kind of implying there’s nothing libertarian about them and thereby invalidating those views and behaviors they have which are libertarian.

I got this insight from talking with people about veganism. Most people aren't ready to stop eating meat (or meat and dairy products, in the case of vegans) altogether. But this doesn't mean they can't reduce animal suffering and benefit their health and the environment by becoming more vegetarian or vegan than they are now. If someone just hears or thinks "I'm not a vegetarian", it tends to kind of close the door and end discussion or thought on the topic. So rather than focusing on whether someone who eats meat "is" or "isn't" vegetarian overall, I like to frame the issue a bit differently. Consider, for example: How vegetarian are you going to be when you eat breakfast tomorrow? How vegan are you going to be when you go shopping today? Such questions can make the daunting idea of “becoming vegan” less of a stumbling block.

The same is true I think with libertarianism. When we make it clear that being libertarian is not an all-or-nothing proposition, it encourages people to think more deeply about the libertarian perspective on various issues, because even if they are not willing to budge an inch on one particular issue, they may be open to considering a libertarian approach in another context. If someone hears she is “not libertarian”, she may look at libertarianism (or the LP) as something she’s totally against, or that just isn't her. But if that person realizes that she is libertarian in some respects, she may be more open to other libertarian ideas. (I should clarify here that I was not a fan of the “you ARE a libertarian” slogan used by Gary Johnson’s generally admirable 2012 presidential campaign " that goes too far in the other direction. But “you might be libertarian”, especially if applied on an issue-by-issue basis, seems like decent phrasing.)

This more nuanced way of thinking and speaking also discourages people whose views are mostly libertarian from resting on their laurels. If I take it for granted that “I’m already a libertarian”, it’s easy to assume I don’t need to spend any more effort on my own continuing process of education and radicalization, and that there’s no real need to examine and think about those issues where I may see aggression as justified.

If you are talking with someone whose views are not as pro-freedom as yours on an issue and come across like, “Libertarianism is the answer, and I’m a libertarian and you’re not,” people may resent what they perceive as an attempt to put yourself on a moral high horse, and “punish” you by refusing to consider the ideas you’re trying to communicate. But if you describe yourself as someone with a lot of libertarian views who has become more libertarian over time but isn’t perfectly libertarian, and concede that there are situations in life where the most libertarian approach may not be the best approach, the other person is more likely to appreciate your honest, humble, and non-dogmatic stance and be more open to further exploring libertarian ideas.

With its incredible potential for improving life on earth, understanding the philosophy of freedom is something to be proud of! But those who identify as libertarian and take pride in that label should be wary of the temptation to redefine libertarianism to mean whatever they personally happen to believe! This allows them to justify claiming their own views to be 100% libertarian without actually adopting views in accord with the Non-Aggression Principle. Clearly defining libertarianism as non-aggression, to yourself as well as to others, is a way to avoid that mental trap.

On most public policy issues, the NAP offers pretty clear guidance on what the libertarian position is. Taxation, for instance " government coercively taking money from people without their individual consent " is clearly aggression. There’s an argument to be made that this type of aggression is justified " and obviously the vast majority of people in society believe it is justified " but just as obviously this is not and can never be, the libertarian position on the issue.

Interfering with people’s global freedom of movement, or choices about what they put into their own bodies " again clearly aggression, as long as they are not trespassing on private property and what they are putting into their bodies belongs to them or they have the owner’s permission.

Of course there are some issues where thoughtful people may reasonably differ over the correct interpretation of the Non-Aggression Principle and therefore reach different conclusions as to which public policy best reflects libertarianism.

Abortion is the classic example of such an issue. If you believe that life begins at conception, then it is aggression to abort a fetus, and the use of force to defend that life is justifiable in libertarian terms. But if you believe life begins at birth, then trying to stop a woman from having an abortion constitutes aggression against her, and cannot be justified under libertarian theory. And of course there are a whole range of possible libertarian positions in between these two poles, relating to considerations such as early and late term abortions, abortions in the case of pregnancies due to rape, etc. In fact the relationship between children and their parents or guardians poses a number of thorny philosophical issues which are too complex to explore here.

But again, these are the exceptions. In most cases, a public policy proposal clearly either involves an initiation of force, or it doesn’t. So if libertarianism is fairly clear but few if any of us can claim to be fully libertarian, where does this leave the Libertarian Party? Should the party ignore the Non-Aggression Principle as impossible to live up to and just resign itself to having lower standards?
 

I say no, a thousand times no. Our libertarianism is what we in the libertarian movement and the Libertarian Party have in common. It’s what inspires us and brings us together. Although as I said I admit not being 100% libertarian on a personal level, I nevertheless think that the Libertarian Party as an organization always should be! I would be delighted to support a party more radical than I am myself.

Why should I urge that the political party I belong to take positions that I know I personally disagree with? Is this hopelessly contradictory? I don’t think so. Clearly there is a tension there, but I see it as no more problematic than the tension between personally opposing something, e.g. the existence of the Ku Klux Klan, while still believing that it should be legal. While that paradox remains beyond the comprehension of many in society, I think it is familiar to and understood by most self-identified libertarians.

Insisting on a libertarian Libertarian Party as a way to more harmoniously and productively work together with others who value freedom even while recognizing that we may have strongly different views about what constitutes the good life is not any stranger a concept.

Let’s try an analogy. Thai food might be my favorite cuisine, but I don't want it for dinner every night. When I go to a Thai restaurant however, I’m looking for Thai food. While it would be wonderful to find a “perfect” restaurant that had everything I like to eat on its menu and nothing that I don’t, completely mirroring my (mostly hypothetical) preferences for eating Thai food about 30% of the time, Indian food 20% of the time, and Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian and Ethiopian cuisine each about 10% of the time, how likely is it that a restaurant catering so specifically to my individual tastes could thrive? Even if I hypothetically organized a group of diners with tastes similar to mine to buy the neighborhood Thai restaurant and gain total control over what type of food to serve, each of us attempting to craft the menu to please our own individual palates would inevitably lead to conflict over how many Thai entrees there should be relative to the selection of Indian food, French fare, and so on. And if the establishment continued to call itself a Thai restaurant, it would likely face a lot of confused and dissatisfied customers. Better that I simply let the Thai restaurant be a Thai restaurant, and when I want Italian food, go eat at the Italian place.

This is sort of the situation we face in the Libertarian Party. There’s an old (and mostly true!) joke along the lines of how if you get 10 libertarians in a room, you’ll find 11 different opinions. As opinionated people who care about making the world a better place, there is a natural tendency for each of us active in the LP to try to get the party’s ideology to reflect our own precise set of beliefs as closely as possible. To the extent we succumb to the temptation however, we needlessly divert energy into unproductive political battles, just as we do when we ignore the Dallas Accord and start fighting over whether the party should embrace anarchy or minarchy. (The Dallas Accord was the informal agreement reached by party members at the LP’s 1974 convention in Dallas, Texas, to set aside that fight until such time as we may have achieved a largely free society, and agree to have party communications and materials not semantically preclude either limited government or no government at all as being our eventual goal.)

Instead of struggling to make the Libertarian Party’s platform and messaging match our own individual beliefs, imagine if we were to make a pact that the LP should take libertarian positions and only libertarian positions, as defined by the consensus interpretation of the Non-Aggression Principle among party members. With such an agreement in effect, anyone with strongly libertarian views could be fairly certain of agreeing with most of what the LP stands for, even if none of us found the entire package to be precisely ideal. Most of us could even hypothetically be quite open about our personal disagreement with certain LP positions (e.g. no laws against individual ownership of nuclear weapons), and there would be no harm in this, nor would the party platform need to spell out verbatim every such radical or controversial implication of adhering to the Non-Aggression Principle, so long as it was clearly understood and agreed by LP members that the party’s mission to oppose legal aggression would be upheld and respected (ideally, voting membership in the party would be conditioned upon acceptance of this).

Setting aside our personal objections or reservations about non-aggression being the best answer to issue X and simply agreeing to let the Libertarian Party be libertarian would enable supporters of freedom to have real confidence in our party as an organization sustainably committed to fighting for more individual freedom despite all the corrupting influences of electoral politics. A radical LP will excite and inspire our base and attract the young, idealistic radicals who have in the past tended to become the shock troops of the left.
 

With such an approach, the Libertarian Party would become like a train chugging steadily north on the Nolan Chart created by and named after the party’s principal founder David Nolan (see http://freedomkeys.com/whoshould4.htm).

Whenever I decide that society is free enough, and no further progress toward the libertarian quadrant is needed, instead of redirect the organization toward some other point on the political compass, I can simply “get off at my stop” by quitting the party, since as far as I am concerned it would have done its job and fulfilled its purpose.
 
Starchild is a libertarian activist in San Francisco and a member of the LNC (Libertarian National Committlee)


 
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