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Strains of libertarianism

Writing over on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Jim Manzi discusses two differing, though not mutually exclusive, strains of libertarianism, which he calls “liberty-as-goal” libertarianism and “liberty-as-means” libertarianism:

In somewhat cartoon terms, one strand takes liberty to be a (or in extreme cases, the) fundamental human good in and of itself; the other takes liberty to be a means to the end of discovery of methods of social organization that create other benefits. ...

Liberty-as-means libertarianism sees the world in an evolutionary framework: societies evolve rules, norms, laws and so forth in order to adapt and survive in a complex and changing external environment. At a high level of abstraction, internal freedoms are necessary so that the society can learn (which requires trial-and-error learning because the external reality is believed to be too complex to be fully comprehended by any existing theory) and adapt (which is important because the external reality is changing). We need liberty, therefore, because we are so ignorant of what works in practical, material terms.

Manzi probably knows the libertarian movement far better than I do, but from an outsider’s perspective I can’t help but feel like there are a lot of movement libertarians who are “liberty-as-goal” libertarians. And it’s this strain that makes it really unlikely that I’d ever identify myself as a libertarian, even though I often find myself in agreement with the specifics of a libertarian policy argument.

I’ve had plenty of discussions with libertarians, online and offline, who act as true believers who are only interested in the messy details of real life as long as they can be bent to conform to a certain ideological predisposition. Obviously you can be this way with many ideologies: For similar reasons I don’t consider myself a Marxist or a Friedmanite, and I’ve been finding the recent aggro atheism pretty off-putting as well. I just don’t see life that way. The world is complicated, and if your political philosophy can be summed up in one paragraph, it’s probably a crap philosophy.

But as a side note: I’ve actually noticed over the years, as the word “libertarianism” seems to be getting broader currency, that the percentage of self-identified libertarians who are also raging assholes seems to be going down over time. Not sure what that means, though I suppose it probably bodes well for that movement.

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Tagged: politics

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