It may not be what you think it is.
After my January 23 post defending our tagline here (“Owning Civil Discourse and Social Justice”), I received some push back about libertarianism. Some seemed incredulous that I would talk of libertarians in a way that made them seem centrist or moderate. I thus thought it worth discussing the sort of view I have in mind when I talk about libertarianism.
For the sake of simplicity, I will start by noting that I decidedly do not mean to be defending the current Libertarian Party, Ron Paul, or Ayn Rand—precisely the sorts of views that those pushing back seemed to assume I had in mind. Rather, I mean to defend something like the views defended by people like David Schmidtz, Loren Lomasky, Chandran Kukathas, and what was presented on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.
Its important, I think to put that in context. Aaron Ross Powell provides much of that context in a post on the contemporary situation of the “libertarian movement.” (See that post.) There, Powell notes
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We need a strong defense of liberty, one that can appeal to the many Americans, on the right and left, who worry that our basic freedoms are on the line in a way unique in recent memory. We need a strong libertarian movement because liberty is under threat, libertarians have the most principled and developed arguments for liberty, and, because we needn’t get caught up in partisan loyalties, we can speak across party divides.
Powell goes on, though, to highlight problems of the libertarian movement as it (including the Party and many supposedly libertarian organizations) currently exists “on the right.” His description of the situation strikes me as almost entirely correct. I say “almost” because, by design, he does not talk about academic libertarians—and it is that group I find myself most aligned with. It is a group that has, I think, always had an uneasy fit in the broader libertarian movement. (Perhaps somehow excepting Hospers and a few others early in the history of the LP.) Indeed, many academic libertarians I know have now abandoned the LP (if they participated in it before—some of us never did). As I indicated in the January 23 post, when I would attend libertarian events in the past I would feel uncomfortable because the majority there seemed to be on the right in a way I never was (this has changed some). I never believed the fusionism popular for decades was worth it. Powell agrees, claiming that “The fact is libertarianism doesn’t have a home on the right, and it never really did.” That fact—that libertarianism as I and Powell conceive it is not on the right is precisely why the “Owning Civil Discourse” part of our tagline works—academic libertarians have been in uneasy and difficult dialogue with the right for decades, partly as a response to being in a similarly uneasy and difficult dialogue with the left (in our academic institutions) all the time.
I will note that when I first read Adam Smith, John Locke (including his sufficiency, spoilage, and charity provisos limiting property), John Stuart Mill (well, some of his work—esp. On Liberty), and Robert Nozick, my view was “yeah, that’s right, isn’t this all obvious? How can anyone deny any of this?” Of course, I don’t think everything those authors said was right. And of course, my view has changed over the years, but that has been a matter of clarification and working out difficulties, not major change.
My initial (and lasting) response when I first read Rawls, was different; I thought “well, obviously we should be concerned with the least well off (assuming they are badly off); but what positive plan do you have to help?” And what many calling themselves Rawlsians seemed to propose inevitably struck me as bad ideas that would both violate important moral principles and completely fail to help—indeed, would be likely to worsen the problems they rightfully worried about. When I read G.A. Cohen’s critique of Nozick, I thought “oh, that’s important; is there a way to address it?” (Hint: there is). Given all of that, my rejection of the libertarian-Republican fusionism never pushed me to seek a fusion with the left. As Powell notes, “Ending right-wing fusionism doesn’t mean cultivating a left-wing variant. The path forward is found in abandoning partisan alliances and focusing instead on issue specific opportunities.” I’m fine with so-called “Rawlsekians,” but I consider myself neither a Rawlsian nor a Hayekian (I like bits of each, dislike other bits of each).
I think my libertarianism shares common ground with many on the left, but not because of a fusion. So too, it shares common ground with many on the right, but not because of a fusion. Those on the left get some things right; those on the right get some things right. As Powell notes, “libertarians have the most principled and developed arguments for liberty.”
The point to all of this is not merely that academic libertarianism straddles the left right divide—a big part of my Jan 23 post—but that readers should not think PSLs are libertarians of the sort that are “on the right.” I am not and never have been a member of the LP. I have voted for LP candidates, but I have also voted for Republicans and Democrats. I vote for the candidate that I think most likely to help the world be better (and, yes, that means better according to how I, as an academic libertarian, think the world should be). Usually that means voting for the candidate with the policies that I think will best serve that purpose. Sometimes it means voting strategically to keep a particularly bad candidate out of office. Sometimes it means voting against a person that may advocate better policies but is such an obviously bad human being that they should never have access to any sort of power. Sometimes it means not voting at all given what I think are equally bad options.
So, what is academic libertarianism? Back in December of 2011 (!) on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog, I offered a possible taxonomy of liberal views. In that post, available here, I offered the following definitions:
1. Liberalism: A family of theories that take liberty and equality to be the most important (and guiding) values in the organization of a just state. Historically, some have added fraternity to liberty and equality. Different liberals understand these core values in different ways.
1.1. [Academic] Libertarianism: A family of liberal views that take negative liberty (freedom from interference) to be the most important (and guiding) value in the organization of a just state, insisting it must be present for all. (Some call this “classical liberalism.”)
I went on to define a variety of libertarian views, but that is not important here. My own libertarian view (see my 2018 for the full thing) is concerned with a moralized form of negative freedom, but the details there are also not important here—and others who write on this Substack will likely disagree about those details while agreeing with the basic thinking. What is important, I think, is that academic libertarians believe that by protecting negative liberty, people will also have positive liberty—which we recognize is also important. By contrast, academic socialists tend to believe that we must protect positive liberty and that doing so will also leave people with negative liberty—and yes, they agree negative liberty is important as well. By further contrast, academic welfare liberals tend to believe that we must protect both negative and positive liberty.
Academic libertarians, again, believe it is negative liberty that must be protected. Importantly, of course, this is about adults of sound mind. Children and those who otherwise fail to have the requisite capacities to be live independent lives need and should have (perhaps even deserve) care. We do not, though, believe in treating adult persons of sound mind as children. We treat them as adults—by respecting that they are due negative liberty. When we all do so, people are free to do what they want and get what they want so long as they do not harm others. They are then not prevented—by state apparatus or otherwise—from starting their own business, whether it be braiding hair, offering educational or medical services, or selling medicinal or recreational drugs. Licensing programs would not hinder them (would not exist). Police would have no authority to stop them from selling single cigarettes, moonshine, or much of anything else. The state only steps in if there is a genuine harm (itself a concept in need of elaboration; see my 2018).
Academic libertarians also accept that sometimes we have to make right historical injustices. That was very clearly present in Nozick and its present throughout BHL and PSL. See, for example, this piece by Matt Zwolinski. We can’t insist that rectifying an injustice by taking from those who benefited by that injustice is theft while ignoring the injustice itself.
Academic libertarians are also anti-licensing—both because licensing laws limit freedom and because they worsen the lives of the worst off. Academic libertarians are not “pro-business,” but are “pro-market”—the distinction being important government handouts to businesses are no better than government handouts to individuals (I would end the former before the latter). Academic libertarians tend to be for open (economic if not political) borders, recognizing that it is only luck that one is born here and not there. Recognizing, in fact, that who one happens to be born near are no more worthy of liberty than those born further away. Your co-nationals, compatriots, co-religionists, neighbors, friends, and family members are more important to you than other people are, but they are not more important than other people.
If I had to boil it down to one line, I would say that academic libertarians tend to be cosmopolitan. We are not in favor of “MAGA” policies from Trump or similar protectionist nonsense from Biden or Sanders. Our view is that liberty is of value and that if government serves any purpose it is to protect (negative) liberty for all, not just those near or like us. We are libertarian citizens of the world, not partisans looking for what is best for ourselves or our neighbors. We might love our neighbors or our country, but we realize that that is our subjective valuation and people in other countries will have their own subjective valuations. (None of which is to deny that we think some countries are objectively better than other countries; everyone knows some are—no one thinks Nazi Germany was objectively better than much of any where else.)
For those who wish to criticize us for being libertarians: please do! Send us your comments or your questions and let’s have a dialogue. But don’t take our view to be that of the LP, Ayn Rand, or a random internet libertarian you happen to notice. If you send us questions about posts here at PSL or even some older ones at BHL, we’ll try to reply, possibly in a new post.
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In the case of academic Marxists, they could get away with "purity" because the disputed cases of "communism" were about far away secretive countries. In the case of academic libertarians, they get away with arguing for libertarian purity, because, almost by definition, any government implementation of a libertarian program is bound to be "too much government", except when it is cutting taxes, or cutting spending. Having a background in economics, where they specialize in this thinking, I don't buy the ideal versus non-ideal theory distinction as feasible. Economic models are notorious for assuming ideals like no transaction costs and perfect information, and they are not going to let reality get in the way of their perfect models. For instance in reality: small government can more easily be captured by large corporations; advertising is largely lies and misinformation; the global economic system is a subsystem of the Earth's ecosystems, and cannot grow bigger than the latter without threatening our survival. Over the last fifty years we have witnessed Fossil Fuel companies gain a deeper control over the American political process, basically buying off the Republican party and allying themselves with Christian Nationalists in order to protect their industry and forestall attempts to transition to renewable energy. Ask yourself why would American Evangelicals and Conservative Catholics support the cause of Fossil Fuel companies? Obviously it has nothing to do with Christianity. What it has to do with is the financial backing that these companies give to support the Republican party's culture war crusades. It's interesting that the one economic solution that honours the free market - a carbon tax - has been rendered moot by the Right, wherever they have power. Which makes me believe that it is not about preserving the free market, it's about preserving the power and dominance of the Fossil Fuel industry.
"Academic libertarianism" reminds me a lot of "Academic Marxism" , that is, people I've known who say that the Soviet Union was not really communist, it was "State Capitalism" or some other portmanteau. In other words, they are purists who reject the real-world compromises that every polity of every sort have to make in order to work.