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Libertarian Purists: Libertarian on Everything -- Except Liberty

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The American Liberty movement is no longer nascent. Its mainstreaming is under way, as evidenced by this article in the New York Times -- the paper that (almost) defines the American mainstream -- about the impact of liberty-focused activists on the ("mainstream") Republican party, as reflected at CPAC last week.

Both culturally and politically, libertarianism is on the rise.

At its simplest, it is a philosophy that asserts the simple principle that we are all free to live our lives as we please inasmuch as we do not limit the freedom of others to do the same. It recognizes that we all have different backgrounds, desires and ambitions, and different metrics and systems for judging the behaviors and choices of ourselves and others.

Since it rests on the notion that one human being cannot know what is best for another -- or at least cannot know it better than the other person, himself, it is an essentially humble philosophy in disposition and an essentially tolerant philosophy in prescription. Indeed, tolerance, manifest as lack of aggression, is just about its only hard-and-fast prescription.

Because libertarians put the moral burden of justification on those who would use coercion (reduce liberty) to do good, and the State is inherently coercive (it puts you in jail if you don't comply), they emphasize civil society as critical to delivering welfare to those less fortunate among us. Civil society includes non-state organizations, formed voluntarily, that act privately to better the lives of their members and, usually, their non-members. These organizations can be more nimble and effective than the state as the good they do does not involve the forced transfer of resources from some people to others, nor does it involve the use of such co-opted resources in ways that the people from whom they are taken would not approve. Moreover, civil society can often deliver much more targeted remedies of social and economic injustice than can the one-size-fits-all programs of government. A libertarian society, then, harnesses for social good the civility of the people who comprise it.

So there we have the three dispositions of a good libertarian: humility, tolerance of diversity, and civility.

Strange, then, that arguably the biggest drag on the rise of libertarian thought is the lack of humility, tolerance and civility of some of its most fervent advocates.

Per the article linked above, for example, there are those who insist that those who would pursue liberty within the political duopoly -- usually by trying to change the Republican party from within -- are naïve. On the other hand, there are those who believe that those who would try to go outside the duopoly to do so are naïve. Both groups are so sure of their own rightness that they won't even celebrate the attempt of their fellows to pursue a different path to the same end, just in case their ability to predict the future might be imperfect and/or their shared goals might benefit from multiple approaches by people with different experiences and perspectives.

Libertarian purists are the people who see any agreement to reduce an infringement of liberty as "selling out" if it does not eliminate that infringement altogether; these are the people who commit the floccinaucinihilipilification of all liberty-promoting actions of a politician just because that politician is actually willing to play politics and even make concessions to circumstance to stay in the game so that he can do any good at all; these are the people who see all compromise as proof of a lack of values -- or of virtue; they see the choosing of battles as proof of a lack of commitment to the war rather than tactics for winning it; these are the people who won't listen to an idea -- or even consider a quotation -- from someone they have decided isn't a "real libertarian" even if that someone has special experience of the issue of which they speak; these are the people who will never admit a tension between libertarian means and libertarian ends. In short, these are people who insist that everyone should be free to think and do as they please -- but will happily put you down should you disagree about how best to make everyone free to think and do as they please.

None of this is to say there is necessarily a problem with what these purists believe. In as much as these are better-than-normally informed lovers of liberty, there usually isn't. The problem, rather, concerns the way they believe it: it is epistemic. One can't identify a purist from the content of his beliefs; one can't even identify him by looking at how he regards contrary beliefs: rather, he is identified by how he treats fellow liberty advocates who hold different beliefs.

Such political religionists, who broach no ecumenism, seem to lack the moral humility on which their purported political religion depends: they are entirely convinced, albeit subconsciously, that there can be no new idea, and no new piece of information about the world or their own perspective, or anything in the experience or thinking of those with whom they disagree, that could show their view of an issue to be incomplete, let alone wrong, in any way that really matters. To quote Bertrand Russell, "Subjective certainty is inversely proportional to objective certainty."

This allows them to impugn the character or capacity, rather than just the positions, of those who could be allies in the pursuit of liberty with whom they disagree. It allows them to dismiss their opponent, and the possibility that he might know something that they don't know -- that he may have, in fact, read what they read, thought what they thought and even previously shared their position -- before discovering something new, or unusual, that warranted a revision. In short, they disrespect the very use of the intellectual freedom that they purport to celebrate and protect. Russell again: "The degree of one's emotion varies inversely with one's knowledge of the facts -- the less you know the hotter you get."

The exercise of freedom, of course, depends on freedom of thought -- the freedom to explore the world, physically and intellectually, and then, based on what you find, to form ideas, to change those ideas, to grow and to evolve. To insist on a politics of liberty, and therefore of tolerance, without tolerating others' approaches to promoting just such a politics, is to falsify one's philosophy -- and to justify the skepticism of all those who want nothing to do with a libertarianism that lacks the very civility in which it puts so much store.

Why am I picking on libertarians? Aren't political advocates of all stripes guilty of lack of humility, tolerance and civility? Aren't such purists found among conservatives, progressives, etc?

Of course they are.

But for libertarians, things are a little different. Libertarians must hold themselves to a higher standard. They preach freedom, and its complement, tolerance, as the core of their worldview. They, then, are alone in making hypocrites of themselves when they aggress in their manners or words against those who have different ideas about how best, in practice, to make a freer society. Other political philosophies (socialism, religious conservatism etc.) make no claim that freedom of thought and action, and its compliment, tolerance, are at the core of the Good life.

My second reason for picking on libertarians is, of course, personal: they form the broad political family to which I belong. And while I am quite content to let the statists and religious right, for example, break themselves on their own arrogance or ignorance or both, I hope that we, who put liberty front and center, never to do the same.

Liberty does not stand alone. It is not the be-all-and-end-all -- for it pre-supposes Truth. First, a commitment to liberty, as to all political principles, assumes that true statements can be made (such as, "the Good life depends on liberty") and second, liberty only has value if people can seek and establish truths based on which they can make conscious choices in their own self-interest.

This commitment to truth both depends on and creates the intellectual humility to which I've already referred. This is most easily seen in the progress of science, which advances toward truth by recognizing that it has not yet found it. Science goes one step further -- to seek actively to falsify itself and thereby to improve its current understanding of the world. That the search for truth is, in this way, always asymptotic, is perhaps the most important paradox of life: to move closer to Truth, one must be continuously aware of one's inability to know it completely.

In contrast, the attitude of the intellectual dogmatist, libertarian or otherwise, is more like, "I have found the truth that matters, and from this position of 'having arrived,' I can see that those who are not here are intellectually or morally flawed." This is the very opposite of the humble epistemology of robust libertarianism, but plenty of libertarians behave this way.

Most of us have probably experienced this unbecoming attitude among some of religion's least attractive adherents. For example, many of us know people who proclaim a Christian faith but use what is essentially a philosophy of Love to justify behavior toward others that is clearly unloving. What is particularly interesting -- and relevant -- is that they will often be able to explain with some coherence, depth, and clear sincerity, why their actions are loving, even though our human nature -- our own direct experience of loving or being loved, for example, -- tells us that there must be something wrong with their explanation, even if we cannot exactly articulate it.

It is as if their actions speak louder than their words. If such people were to design our political institutions and occupy our political offices, would it be their words or their behaviors that would determine what it felt like to live under them? Now replace "Christians" with "libertarians", and "love" with "humility, tolerance and civility", and ask the same question.

If I had to choose, I'd rather inhabit a world of civil, open-minded statists, with whom I profoundly disagree, than one of dogmatists of any stripe -- even libertarian. Why? Because if the statists are open-minded, then they will be interested in the evidence of experience and, if they are civil, we will have a healthy exchange of ideas and be able to improve our shared community. Meanwhile, I will enjoy my humanity in relationships of mutual respect. Sharing space with the dogmatic libertarian, however, will be tolerable, if dull, until we disagree -- which we will, because we are human. At that point, the lack of any compromise or, therefore, the prospect of being able to improve our community in a mutually satisfactory way, along with the being looked down upon for my erroneous understanding of liberty -- even as I am politically "free" to act as I will -- would make me quite miserable.

If a libertarian world is made happy by replacing political aggression and force with the actions of people who are civil and tolerant, then we cannot expect people to come to our side if we cannot even exhibit those qualities when we interact with allies who seek such a world, just because they seek it in ways whose effectiveness we question.

Surely, libertarians will have the best chance of turning our present "libertarian moment" into a sweeping libertarian movement if we pursue liberty with the humility, civility and tolerance of diversity with which we are seeking to replace the arrogance, corruption and authoritarianism that infect our politics today.

Please, be libertarian about your libertarianism.