It’s tempting to just pile on Dave Weigel after he was outed as hating many of the libertarian/conservatives he was writing about for Washington Post
, ostensibly as a movement insider. One could condemn him as a traitor, or at least a disappointment on a par with conservative-turned-moderate David Brooks. One might even go on to ask why Reason, which earlier employed him, can’t find more libertarians to hire
. But then again: when did Dave ever promise the world he’d be a strict libertarian? The sad truth is, even if he thought many libertarians are idiots and swore at them, he probably still understands us better — and was covering us more sympathetically — than virtually any other Post staffer would, for what that’s worth.
I was one of those who was sometimes bothered by his Reason writing, not because he was failing to toe the party line but because I didn’t think he was communicating clearly where he was coming from (even while he seemed to be adamant and intensely sarcastic). In retrospect, he was probably ambiguous with good reason, so to speak.
But it’s not as if it’s a crime to write for a libertarian magazine without being a full-fledged libertarian, nor for that matter a crime to write about conservatives without being a full-fledged conservative, nor (as may be the next, and perhaps most useful, step) to write for liberal publications without being a conventional liberal. Moderation in pursuit of liberty isn’t the worst thing in the world, much as I might prefer everyone be an anarcho-capitalist. And much as I might like it if all legislators became anarcho-capitalists, I realize that writers all being anarcho-capitalists could get boring (at least at this early stage in human history, you understand, before we’ve ended government once and for all and moved on to other topics).
Maybe Dave should become Libertarian Type #11 on this admirably succinct and accurate About.com list (forwarded to me by someone, and my apologies for forgetting who) of Ten Types of Libertarian (to which one could perhaps add “liberaltarians,” if that small movement can’t just be lumped under “classical liberal,” and perhaps add Extropians/transhumanists and their tech-focused ilk as a separate category, though “we are all transhumanists now (or soon, very soon)” and the actual Extropy Institute has apparently closed). I should note again that I tend to err on the side of saying that anyone who thinks a label suits him — and seems to share at least the basics of a political philosophy — is indeed inside the club, terminologically speaking, even if he’s wrong about some things (I’m not now necessarily referring to Dave, who may not call himself a libertarian, but to any people who sincerely insist they’re libertarians yet find themselves being read out of the movement).
In a world where actions can determine life or death but words are often just hot air, I have never had much patience for people who waste time saying “You’re not a real libertarian [or for that matter, conservative or liberal or Marxist or punk or American or Scotsman or what have you]” or “Those so-called libertarians [at AEI, in the Texas statehouse, what have you].” You don’t generally speaking build a coalition — which, like it or not, you’re desperately going to need if you want to have any impact on politics beyond words — by telling everyone they’re disqualified for 600 petty reasons.
Yes, I’ve argued with the “liberaltarians,” but that was about whether they are correct to think Democrats/modern liberals are more useful allies than Republicans/conservatives (an idea surely all but dead after a couple years of Obama spending), not whether their efforts linguistically disqualify them as libertarians (and I should note I routinely use the scare quotes on that term not to suggest that it is absurd but simply to increase the odds that a casual reader will notice that it’s not simply the word “libertarian”). Let me take a moment to thank the “liberaltarians” for making an outreach effort, in fact — and even to thank Kerry Howley for talking to feminists so that I don’t have to.
The only thing that irks me — and it irks me when an Objectivist or a paleolibertarian does it as much as when a “liberaltarian” does it — is when those quirky apostates try to read all the rest of us out of the movement (or claim the rest of us are being inconsistent, whereas you should at least give anarcho-capitalists huge points for consistency, if nothing else), as if the apostates have the authority to declare people clear-cut non-libertarians for, say, being hawks or not sharing the liberal culture agenda or what have you, even if we’re staunch property rights adherents and that position seems to settle at least 99% of libertarian-vs.-non-libertarian policy disputes, from what I’ve seen over two decades of following the movement.
Careful observers will note that I don’t read people out of the movement even when I strongly disagree with them, so long as they are mostly sticking to some version of the core principles, some version that usually results in the same sorts of answers the strict property adherents arrive at. I’d be comfortable with open borders, but far be it from me to tell the vast number of anti-illegal-immigration folks who’ve entered the movement in the past three years that they aren’t libertarians. I can still think they’re wrong on that issue — or at least that it’s ambiguous — without denying that they want to abolish most of the government, shore up property rights, let the market decide things, etc. They’re libertarians, even if they’re not just like me (almost no one is).
Sidenote: The “libertarian socialists” on that About.com list are a special case — they aren’t really raising any tribal boundary questions at all, since they’re simply using the word “libertarian” in the European, Marxist sense, making it a mere homonym with the movement I’m part of — albeit with some real historical ties, if you go back to nineteenth-century anarchists, who all hated the aristocracy and in most cases (especially among Georgists) landlords. Either English-speaking or Continental-style libertarians could rightly say they wish the other group would stop using the word, but they aren’t really fighting for the soul of a single philosophical movement.
In philosophy class (my model for how everything should work, alas), if two people get bogged down in an argument over two different possible meanings of a term, they don’t just keep screaming at each other, they eventually define their terms more clearly and use conventions such as referring to one position as, say, “utility 1” and the other as “utility 2.” Solves a lot of problems — but some people would rather find out if semantic battles can be fought to the death.
(And speaking of utilitarianism, my underlying moral philosophy, I keep thinking that there are declining marginal returns to infighting — not to mention battles over where to eat that take so long that everyone would have been happier going to that first Chinese place we passed, etc.)
Anyone tempted to excommunicate everyone else should keep in mind that even if every free-market fan and center-right activist on the planet were working in concert, we might still be outnumbered by statists and might still lose this fight. With populist/popular versions of the libertarian impulse breaking out, such as the Tea Party movement, with the inevitable mutations/simplifications in the philosophy that entails, now is no time to tell everyone that they should shut up and return to their homes unless, say, they’re 100% pro-cloning.
We need all hands on deck, much sooner than I’d anticipated. I was content with gradualism and (paradoxical as it may sound) with picky infighting when it seemed like the final showdown between markets and unsustainable welfare states was decades or even centuries in the future. But it looks like the final battle may be right now, and it’s no time to excommunicate the guy in the trench next to you, be he Republican, feminist, copyright-abolisher, evangelical, single-taxer, or “Rawlsekian.”
(That word, as awkward as “liberaltarian” and used by the same crowd, may actually apply to me, ironically, since I’d be comfortable with “conditional” laws that decreed a Hayek-style free market except in the event that there was an unattended-to crisis among the worst-off, such as starvation not handled by charity, in which case, perhaps, a temporary tax and public food provision kicked in — indeed, that would surely be an easier sell than the come-Hell-or-high-water approach, and the conditional taxes, I hope, would never prove necessary. We are not so different, really.)
P.S. For us libertarians, it was fun to see both a Reason guy (Weigel) and a Mises Institute guy (William Grigg, writing about cops tasering an eighty-six year-old woman) linked on Drudge yesterday, whatever the circumstances.