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.