Oct 27, 2016

Controversies About the “Libertarian” Label

Worrying about labels is unproductive so long as those labels facilitate clear thinking.

I see that the Adam Smith Institute now prefers to wear the label “neoliberal,” and that it has abandoned “libertarian” as a self-descriptor.

As for me, I try to live by the advice of the great Karl Popper: I never quarrel about words. At least I try not to. Not even about the word “libertarian.”

Not quarreling about it comes easily for me. For one thing, I can’t not be a libertarian. My name’s on the title page of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism.

Heroic re-branding would probably fail, too. I’d still want a massive rollback of government at every possible level. Others would more or less justifiably call me a libertarian, and it wouldn’t matter one bit if I personally insisted that I was a Pastafarian neo-Maoist.

In themselves, words are garbage. They are not worth fighting for, or against. They are only valuable as a means to an end, and the end is clear thinking. If a word helps you think, or helps you explain, then use it. If not, then ditch it.

But we can do more than that, if we like, for we can also use our words creatively: Sometimes a word can be almost arbitrarily redefined, and yet if it is used well and consistently by a given author, the effect is marvelously clarifying. Humpty Dumpty was not entirely wrong, then: When I use a word, it can mean just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less—provided that I do not abuse the reader’s intelligence, and that I show some awareness of how the word has been used in the past, and that whenever I deviate from past usage, I explain how and why I have done it.

Past usage created the language we use in the present. Those of us close to the term “libertarian” will recognize that as such, language is a spontaneous order. Many aspects of language thus presumably exist for strong if unappreciated reasons, including the definitions of terms. As agents in the spontaneous order, it is our responsibility to attempt to understand these reasons before we undertake to change anything.

As far as I can tell, the reasons underlying the current, contested use of the word libertarian seem mostly to relate to an intellectual genealogy: We all at some point read Rand, or Rothbard, or Nozick, or Hayek, or Friedman. Unlike most, we did not run screaming back to the conventional wisdom. We engaged. We got weird. We weren’t ashamed of it.

Where we went from there, though, can vary enormously, in ways that I don’t have space to discuss. That shouldn’t surprise anyone; liking a collection of authors doesn’t guarantee any particular endpoint to anyone’s thinking, let alone the thinking of a highly diverse group of people.

The downside here is that certain of the implicit assumptions derived from the term “libertarian” are not necessarily correct. In particular, the term may relate more to our shared past than to our divergent present or future. I’m okay with that. In my line of work it doesn’t pay to make enemies, and—Popper again—I try to avoid making any enemies merely over words.

Spontaneous orders, language included, are imperfect. They sometimes generate locally bad or confusing outcomes, even if the global outcome is better than any one person could possibly have designed alone. We agents in the spontaneous order of language are not called on to remake the whole. But sometimes we can and should say when a given part isn’t working so well. That, too, is the responsibility of a conscientious wordsmith.

Were it up to me, I do not think that I would invent the word libertarian. I would not add it to the spontaneous order of the English language. I would prefer NOT to have a term that puts me in the same political box with Hans Hermann Hoppe. As I’ve said elsewhere, that’s just confusing and unfair to everyone involved—to me, and to him, and to anyone who encounters the word “libertarian” when it’s used in this way. Such usage is a reliable factory of false inferences.

But here’s the thing about spontaneous orders: They are never finished. As architecture, they are always falling down, and they are always being built back up someplace else in some new way. When I use the term libertarian, I do not mean it to denote Hans Hermann Hoppe, or the old-time racism of the Old Right, or the postmodern racism of the alt-right. I do not mean a rigid theocratic community whose only reliable liberty is the liberty of exit—if they happen not to stone you first. I do not mean a patriarchy run by Peter Thiel. I do not even mean the Complete Gospel of Everything that Murray Rothbard Ever Wrote.

I mean it to denote something different from any of these, and I’m okay with the term being contested. At least within everything that I write, I shall undertake to use it consistently, and not to quarrel too much about it. For me, libertarianism consists of a deep, well-considered appreciation of how spontaneous orders arise and function in human societies, and how these orders both make many good things possible and also frustrate many designs that we might otherwise prefer. It means, in the face of these realities, that we must be intellectually modest with regard to what coercion in any form, and particularly state coercion, can reliably accomplish. It may even mean (as some already hold) that government itself is entirely unwarranted.

This to me is the valuable part in the intellectual genealogy that we all share. You may find other parts of it more or less valuable, and you may use our contested term, nor not, in whatever way you like. Just be clear about it, and we’re all good.