Friday, August 3, 2007

I Know You Aren't, But What Am I?

tribe.jpg Since last night saw (a) half of the House of Representatives walk out angry after concluding that a vote count had been botched and (b) an ongoing spiral of argument on my previous blog entry over Ron Paul and who is or is not a libertarian (or a warmonger or a Qaeda dupe), now seems like a fitting time to strike a note of reconciliation.

Fascinating as some of my fellow libertarians find it to argue about who qualifies as a libertarian, I have never found such debates to be very productive. As a philosophy student, I always assumed the purpose of defining terms (generally speaking) was to clarify arguments, not to win them. So, for instance, if someone makes an airtight case that “You’re not a libertarian,” why isn’t the appropriate response, “So what?” I mean, presumably one is interested in being correct, not necessarily in retaining a narrowly-defined label (whether the label is “libertarian,” “Marxist,” “conservative,” or what have you) — and note that I’m not at all saying “Labels don’t matter,” since that would be tantamount to saying “Language doesn’t work for identifying things,” which would be distressing news indeed.

Rather, it seems to me that even the most hardcore ideologue, confronted with a divisive enough question about whether Position A disqualified one as an example of X, ought (unless he enjoys being bogged down in semantic disputes, a perverse attitude that only linguists, I hope, would have) simply to say, “OK, so maybe we have X1 people, who believe position A fits into the philosophy and X2 people, who believe position A doesn’t fit into the philosophy.” And then you’re free to go on and argue (perhaps in a far less apocalyptic, tribal-warfare, excommunication-like fashion) about whether one should hold Position A, based on its merits, rather than as a hair-splitting definitional matter.

Or to put it another way, the next time someone tells you that you aren’t really a libertarian because you (like Giuliani/think it’s OK to attack coercive foreign regimes/think we should not attack anybody unless attacked first/date someone you met at a state-funded car auction/etc./etc.), why not just respond calmly by saying, “OK, so why don’t we call you a schmibertarian and me zibertarian and then continue the more substantive, non-semantic debate?” I just don’t see how any substantive argument can be won simply by ruling people “outside the tribe” — though I can see immense instinctual reasons, which ought to be anathema to individualistic, libertarian thinking, for wanting to “win” that way.

As my friend Virginia Postrel once said, if you’re defining “libertarian” so narrowly (the most narrow definition that’s used with any frequency at all being one that rules out anyone except strict anarcho-capitalists who believe coercion is always wrong under any circumstances and that as a result any military action that risks even accidentally harming innocents is forbidden) that even Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek do not qualify as libertarians — not to mention Virginia Postrel — something seems to have gone horribly, horribly wrong, though the warm glow of your own righteousness will no doubt be a great comfort to you in your lonely cabin in the mountains of Idaho until the Feds arrive.

And note that I’m not making a substantive argument in favor of bombing anyone or coercing anyone — maybe we really never should — but the impulse to banish people linguistically rather than persuading them is juvenile.

It may be no coincidence, of course, that a lot of my favorite people (even when I disagree with them) are somehow boundary-crossers or ambiguous cases, ideologically speaking, from the anti-Green post-Marxists at Spiked-Online to my fellow Phillips Foundation fellow Read Schuchardt (something of a “crunchy conservative” who combines lefty-sounding media theory with fairly orthodox Christianity — as did Marshall McLuhan, for those keeping score) to those libertarians, more patient than I perhaps, attempting “liberaltarian” outreach to the left instead of outreach to the right (witness this interview by the libertarian site Brainwash with Nader-approved Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel — which may be further evidence that the young think anti-corporate thinking can lead in a libertarian rather than socialist direction, which I doubt is true, but that’s a separate topic) — not to mention my science-before-politics employers, who sometimes confuse and anger people of all ideological stripes (and who cannot in any way be blamed for my ravings here). I promise a long-overdue set of links to far more of my far-flung acquaintances soon, by the way (my apologies to the as yet unblogrolled).

But even if I disagree with some of the things said by the aforementioned people, I’m not going to waste time saying “You’re not real leftists, Spiked!” (as most of their critics seem to) or “You’re not a real conservative, Read!” (because he dislikes capitalism, Bush, war, etc.). And more than one of my acquaintances has had to endure lengthy debates — with actual smart people — about whether she is or is not really a Jew, and to what productive end I know not (aside from relieving people’s extreme anxiety over ambiguous cases, the source, I think, of everything from zombie myths to resentment of gays, to take two examples off the top of my head).

As for me, I’ve heard all of the following directed at me at some point:

– “How are you ‘conservative’?”

– “That’s not ‘liberal’!”

– “You are not an ‘anarchist’!”

– “You’re an anarchist!!”

– “We’re not ‘moderates’ — we’re radicals for liberty!!”

– “You’re just a yuppie, in others words.”

– “You can’t call yourself an ‘atheist,’ then!”

– “You don’t believe in [government or] God either?! So you’re just a complete idiot!” (I mention this one only because I got the impression that one or the other would have been tolerable)

And of course (intoned sadly — and by one of my favorite people):

– “I’m not even sure you’re a libertarian anymore.”

The last one was uttered verbatim due to my (qualified) endorsement of tradition as a guiding force and was repeated almost verbatim (or at least implied) due to my refusal to rule the Iraq war out of bounds on basic principle alone (truth be told, I voted for Bush twice, though neither time with enthusiasm, so it’s ironic I’m now in danger of being ruled out of bounds for endorsing that anti-militarist rebel, Ron Paul — and I wish there were a link to my NYU Journal of Law & Liberty article making the case for tolerating Bush, but maybe I’ll have to post it myself at some point, relic of a lost past though it now seems).

Anyway, if some issue is so divisive that people on opposite sides of it say that holding the other position disqualifies you for membership in the coalition, it’s probably a pretty good sign that’s not the most constructive place to make the locus of group identity, if one’s concerned about that sort of thing.

Think of it this way: if a large group of, say, plumbers debated military policy, would they waste hours arguing about whether plumbers “by definition” had to oppose the Iraq war and trying to semantically excommunicate each other? Or would they continue to be brother plumbers while debating the underlying issue, hopefully in a detailed, empirical fashion rather than a rule-of-thumb checklist-of-principles way? They’d agree on some things, disagree on others, change their minds (one hopes) from time to time, and continue to unclog drains and so forth (rather than attempting to revoke each others’ plumber licenses on the basis of contentious side issues).

I don’t think it should be substantially different among libertarians when a tricky issue arises, like foreign policy or abortion, which this economics-based philosophy wasn’t really designed to handle with the same ease as economics.


Seer said...

I think the right way to about it is to have variations on the libertarian label.

There are Left-Libertarians who view the state as having a legitimate role in intervening with personal lives to achieve social “justice”.

There are Neolibertarians who view foreign interventionism as justified because it promotes liberty abroad (a position I used to hold, but now find extremely disagreeable).

There are anarcho-capitalist libertarians, as well as monetarists and Austrian-Schoolers in general.

And more.

Todd Seavey said...

And, again, that might be useful for purposes of clarification but should perhaps be viewed _even more warily_ as a means of fostering healthy debate — since it may just lead to people getting even more defensive about definitional and boundary issues, creating more tribalism (instead of less) by creating more tribes.

Libertarians are already doomed if they say “I can’t talk to those conservatives (or liberals),” and if on top of that they find themselves tempted to say “You just can’t reason with those neolibertarians the way you can with us left-libertarians” (or vice versa or what have you) you’re still back in that lonely cabin in Idaho.

An amusing (or maybe annoying) aside: as if things weren’t complex enough with the labels, the term “neolibertarians” already had an existing meaning, completely unrelated to military issues, before it was adopted for that purpose, namely to distinguish so-labeled complete free-marketeers from the arguably-older “geolibertarian” movement of adherents of the philosophy of Henry George (the nineteenth-century economist and losing 1886 candidate for mayor of New York City), a double-entendre suggesting they are “Georgists” and believers that the “geographic” fact of land being a non-expandable resource makes its ownership more morally dubious (and thus more appropriately taxable) than other forms of property.

If geolibertarian = (libertarian minus land ownership), then Hong Kong is the Georgist paradise, since its very limited supply of land has long been used as a justification for making its land technically rental property owned by the government, while virtually all its other policies are rather libertarian (including the increasingly popular flat tax).

But of course, I just can’t talk to those geolibertarian people — they’re beyond the pale (ha ha). (George himself was also a laborite and ally of anti-black Irish nationalist immigrants during his mayoral campaign, so try mapping that onto current ideological divisions if you really want to make your head ache — another reminder there’s a lot to be said for taking issues one at a time instead of prioritizing the tracking of partisan allegiances.)

Amelia Bedelia said...

Is Read short for something?

Seer said...

Where is the line drawn, because even if you want a more inclusive label, there is a line somewhere. I mean, I think we can agree that Hillary Clinton is not a libertarian. I’m not even comfortable calling her a liberal.

Steve LaBianca said...

There is alot of truth to Mr. Seavey’s current post/article. Perhaps I am one of those who he is talking about, as I couldn’t understand how he might support Giuliani. Plus I stated that Eric (Rittberg) Dondero is not a libertarian. Labels are important to a great extent, just as words have definitions, but more importantly they have meaning in real life, and aren’t just “definitions” in the dictionary. When I say that Giuliani is antithetical to liberty, which, as a value and a condition for human flourishing is essential, by extension then, Giuliani cannot be a libertarian. Yet, Mr. Giuliani, who has espoused that freedom is about authority and giving up autonomy to the government, is being touted on, as being more libertarian than Ron Paul! Dondero also posted a comment, alluding that nation-building after World War II was a good and proper course of action. Even if it was under those circumstances, the U.S. didn’t go into that war to nation-build. Thus these actions taken after WWII do not apply to Iraq. More bait and switch from Dondero.

Thanks for a great discussion, and in the event that Ron Paul does not get the Republican nomination, I shall work to get a strong non-interventionist candidate nominated at the Libertarian Party’s convention in Denver next year.

God help us if Ron Paul doesn’t get the nomination, AND the LP nominates Wayne Allen Root. UGH!!!!

Jacob T. Levy said...

I *think* I got complimented in there by implication. At least, I’ll pretend it was directed at me, and bask in the warm glow.

I’ll admit that I laughed out loud at “beyond the pale,” but worry that I”m the only person in the world who would have done so.

bret said...

I initiated, or at least loudly continued, the Dondero-label-bashing frenzy on the other thread. However, I felt it had value. Although it is, as you suggest, probably at some point reductio ad absurdum (I think I have that properly) to define it in a narrow fashion, I believe it is critically important to stand very firm on the most important moral issue of politics.

And that is, whether offensive war is ever acceptable. While people like Dondero et al. claim that it is, perhaps in limited circumstances, I believe, and hope that you will agree, that it is never acceptable. Even if you only approach it from a pragmatic standpoint, clearly – and by that, I mean REALLY clearly – history does not support the notion that an offensive war 1) can ever be successful or 2) is ever justified in the eyes of humanity.

Now, this is important. I’ve never been interested in national politics before, because it always seemed like a useless shell game – government always won in the end. But something is happening. I think the massive failures of the last 10 to 15 years or so have created a political underclass of folks just like me… I never expected that. And so it is heartening to see your article, and read all the positive comments, and be a part of the various fundraisers and rallies and events – I helped organize a charity food drive, even. Things seem to be happening, the traditional conservative message – that is, “Conserve the Constitution” – appears to be resonating with people. People are waking up to the fact that there is a very large portion of the populace who hasn’t been participating in the political process because nobody represented our views. That is changing. The label you put on it is immaterial, except insofar as it is important to denounce people who espouse the antithetical doctrine, regardless of whatever label they put on themselves (one can lump people like Cheney in with Hunter, Tancredo, and Dondero).

Todd Seavey said...

Julian Sanchez replies on his blog that people often confuse the semantic and the substantive arguments, which is true:

Likewise, I’m not saying Giuliani’s views don’t matter but rather that the far, far more ambiguous question of whether a libertarian in good faith can favor Giuliani among the likely-to-win candidates (as a legitimate strategy for achieving the least-bad outcome in a flawed world) is the sort of tricky question that generous listeners — capable of dialogue, coalition-building, and any imaginable significant beneficial impact on the world — do not pounce upon as an excommunication opportunity.

If someone says to you, “I hate property rights because capitalism hurts the poor,” by all means (politely) note that the person’s not a libertarian, but if for instance the person’s saying (even erroneously), “The world’s not perfect, and what I’m aiming for is a minarchist, constitutional republic with strict property rights, but given the likely alternatives in the election, I think I’ve gotta back McCain because he seems like the most eager budget cutter and I don’t believe any other electable candidate shares his zeal on that central government-shrinking issue,” it just seems stupid to me to ignore that person’s manifestly libertarian intentions and read him out of the movement.

You can still argue against McCain without reading the pro-McCain speaker out, so lay off the excommunication. You’ll have more allies. If the speaker then goes on to say something like, “You know, I’m really starting to love communism,” _then_ go ahead and (still politely) read him out.

Put another way (one last time, I hope): why get into internal screaming matches over cases that are obviously highly ambiguous and imperfect when there’s enough work to be done persuading people on the cases we consider clear-cut? As I noted in an earlier post, Brian Doherty’s history of the libertarian movement makes clear that lots of prominent libertarians at one point or another read lots of the other prominent libertarians out of the movement (including people like Rand, Hayek, and Friedman) and, in short, it strikes me as insane.

Steve LaBianca said...

I apologize but I must take another stab at this . . . I probably have a more restrictive definition of “libertarian” than most, though I don’t exclude minarchists, and even some constitutionalists. However, I cannot see how, with the positions, actions, and statements taken (and made) by Giuliani as a U.S. attorney and as mayor, electing him can even move the country in a libertarian DIRECTION! I don’t agree with eveything Ron Paul believes . . . I don’t think his border control stance is the proper way to keep the welfare rolls from rising; the proper way is to eliminate, or at least reduce the welfare state. But will the election of Ron Paul move the country in a libertarian direction? Absolutely, and to a great extent!

I certainly don’t believe that just because I believe that Giuliani isn’t libertartian, then all must agree, but if you look at Rudy’s stand on gun control, for example, I believe that it is ummistakably proper to conclude that a Giuliani presidency, despite his somewhat libertarian friendly stance on a few issues, on balance would take the country in a statist direction. Though it may be cliche to say it, but paraphrasing Harry Browne, you can never get to where you want to go if you continue to support the lesser of two evils, or even to strive toward a minimal goal. Shoot high, and be grateful that at least the result of your efforts is a move in the libertarian direction. There will be more days to work to continue the trend (God willing!).

Todd Seavey said...

As noted in the next chronological blog entry, you should hear me via this online radio station talking about Paul circa 6:20 Eastern (5:20 Central, etc.) on Wed., Aug. 8: