There’s been a bit of discussion about the nature of libertarianism on the blog recently, and as the resident pseudo-libertarian, I thought I would re-state where I come down on the matter (this is based largely on an older post I did on the subject, which sadly is now lost in the cyber-ether).
To understand where I am coming from, one needs to make a distinction between political positions held as a matter of moral principle, and those held as a matter of prudence. Take the issue of torture. One might oppose the use of torture on the grounds that it’s not a good way to get information from suspects, or because by using torture on the enemy you risk retaliation by the enemy on your people, etc. Alternatively one might believe that torture is just immoral, and you should do it regardless of whether or not it is effective.
Call the first type of objection to torture “pragmatic” and the second “principled.” (A person might object to torture on both pragmatic and principled grounds, in which case the opposition would be principled, though buttressed by pragmatic considerations). Dividing the justifications for various political positions into principled or pragmatic can be sometimes tricky, but the basic idea is, I hope, intuitive enough.
A principled libertarian, as I use the term, is someone who holds libertarian political beliefs for principled reasons. Taxation is theft, my body, my business, etc. In my experience, when you say libertarian this is what people think of.
Most principled libertarian arguments are, in my opinion, quite bad. Indeed, back in the day I considered myself something of an anti-libertarian, and enjoyed poking holes in the faulty logic of such arguments.
There is, however, another tradition of libertarianism that is largely pragmatic. Milton Friedman was of this school, as was Hayek. A pragmatic libertarian generally accepts the legitimacy of government intervention as a means to achieve valuable social ends, and he may even agree with progressives or socialists or whomever about the desirability of the ends sought to be achieved. It’s just that in most cases he believes government intervention is not an effective means of achieving that end. There’s nothing wrong in principle with bleeding a patient in order to cure them of some disease except for the (admittedly important) fact that it doesn’t actually work (and will often make things worse). If there is a difference between pragmatic libertarians and non-libertarians when it comes to ends, it is that pragmatic libertarians sometimes suspect that others secretly value government intervention as an end in itself, and that the talk of all the great benefits of intervention is just a rationalization (this, thought, mind you, is usually restricted to one’s less charitable moments).
It should also be noted that pragmatic libertarianism is not an all or nothing thing. Unless one is an anarchist, one must accept the desirability of government action in some areas, and if it turns out that some of these areas don’t fit neatly within the realm of the nightwatchman state of classical liberalism, this needn’t shake the pragmatic libertarian to his core.
As should be obvious from my description, my brand of libertarianism is almost entirely pragmatic. I do think that there are some areas that should be beyond the reach of the state, but in terms of most political debates in modern America these limits typically don’t come into play.
Does this mean that I am not a “true libertarian”? I would argue no, folks like Hayek and Friedman have as much claim to the name libertarian as do devotees of Murrary Rothbard. But frankly I don’t really care that much. Fundamentally I view arguments about whether position X or Y are “really” libertarian to be along the lines of arguing about whether X or Y are “really” conservative. It can be fun to argue about, but at the end of the day I’d rather talk about whether X or Y are correct than whether they fall under a particular political label.