Will Wilkinson: Nonlibertarian or Liberal Libertarian

Recently, Will Wilkinson announced on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog that he was no longer willing to call himself a libertarian:

 I’m not interested in identifying myself [as] a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe.

Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.) Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights. I could go on.

Given the prevailing public understanding of “libertarianism,” this ain’t it and I’m no libertarian. And it’s not at all clear to me what is to be gained by trying to get people to retrofit the label to fit my idiosyncratic politics. At any rate, that’s not a project I’m interested in. I am interested in what it means to be free, and the role of freedom in flourishing or meaningful or valuable lives.

I can certainly sympathize with Wilkinson’s frustration with the tendency among many to view libertarians as a single monolithic group.  Moreover, I agree entirely with some of the “non-standardly-libertarian things” he lists and agree at least in part with much of the remainder.  Back in the day, I used to be a Nozickian libertarian who fit pretty well with the standard definition of the libertarian position.  But over the years, through the influence of Friedrich Hayek, Richard Epstein, and others, I became a consequentialist, more moderate, and more conservative.  So today I am something of a moderate, conservative libertarian.  But so what?  I still regard myself as a libertarian, although of a different type than the old me.

I think Wilkinson’s response to the monolithic understanding of libertarianism is unproductive.  The better response is two fold.  First, one should feel free to describe oneself as hyphenated libertarian – in Wilkinson’s case, calling himself a liberal libertarian would do just fine (even the less euphonious “liberaltarianism” that Wilkinson previously employed might be ok).   Second, one should insist that “libertarian” is not a monolithic political position.  That there are different kinds of libertarians, just as there are different kinds of conservatives (economic, social, defense hawks) and different kinds of liberals.  There are vigorous libertarians and moderate libertarians; liberal libertarians,  conservative libertarians, and left libertarians; deontological libertarians and consequentialist libertarians.

Not only do I think it would be accurate for Wilkinson to call himself a liberal libertarian,  I also believe there is an important strategic reason for him to do so.  Libertarianism is a minority – perhaps a small minority – position and it can use all the support it can get.  When libertarians are a large minority or a majority, then they may have the luxury of focusing more on their differences.  But for now it is important to place the interests of liberty above having what one regards as the perfect name for one’s position.  No one wants to be in the position of sounding like the People’s Front for Judea.

Reader Discussion

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on January 13, 2012 at 15:08:40 pm

Will is over thinking things. Having three categories instead of two is an improvement (rep vs. dem, right vs. left).
I will agree that some of the pure libertiarian views that any taxes are bad are hard to square with reality. Even Ron Paul thinks there is some federal government with some budget. Keeping those taxes small and limited is where we have failed.

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John Britely
on July 20, 2012 at 05:13:23 am

I think the rise of libertarianism can, iedend, be described as mass delusion, but it's pretty nuts-and-bolts as to how we got to this point. Civics, history, and economics are, by and large, taught horribly in the public schools, in ways that tend to make students' eyes glaze over--to some extent, I think this is, in the end, by design, but whatever the causes, there is no doubt that the schools just don't educate the population on these topics. So combine a largely ignorant mass of Americans with a mass media that always, always, always favors the propertied class, in both entertainment and news programming, and the bogus tenets of libertarianism don't appear to look half bad. You know, "no such thing as a free lunch" and all that stuff seem reasonable if you don't think about it too much, so it doesn't surprise me that so many people are into it.

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on March 24, 2020 at 22:49:36 pm

I have called myself a libertarian- Westernist, libertarian- Neo-catholic, etc. I am not 100 percent libertarian, i do have libertarian viewpoints. I respect the proto-libertarians the forbears, trailblazing for the idea of the worth and dignity of the individual person. Many people like me in the US have libertarian viewpoints even if we don't 'hate the state (i've read Murray Rothbard), or don't hate government. The whole point of having libertarian views to begin with IMO is to put the lives of innocent human beings ahead of ideology, ahead of politicians, ahead of politics in general. I just took a political quiz recently and the result came out that i was 46 percent libertarian. To dogmatic purists it would be grounds for excommunication?? I was trying to explain to a conservative the value of drawing from libertarian thought and he gave me a garbled guilt trip about an abusive mother. ??? It is true that i disagree with some libertarian views, but throwing every single part and parcel of it out is completely unfair, borders on slander and detrimental to liberty generally, detrimental to the cause of God-given free will. Some libertarians have defended the Holiday season so they did a better job defending my faith than half the clergy. Some are pro-Israel as am I. Why slander libertarians over diverging opinions? What about independence of thought, and free will, says I? Though i'm only a hyphenated libertarian Traditional person myself, I view Hayek, Friedman, Edmund Opitz, the writers of the Freeman magazine, and individualist thought as worth drawing from.

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Kevin J Bruneau

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