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The Role of the Libertarian in a Non-Libertarian Society

Summary:
Tyler Cowen recently wrote an essay called state capacity libertarianism. Cowen starts by noting that libertarianism is an ideology that loses adherents and has failed to effectively solve any major public policy problems. This can be disputed but that is not my goal. Rather, I want to use Cowen’s essay to motivate a bigger question about the culture of libertarianism: what should libertarians do in a decidedly non-Libertarian society?  Cowen’s observation about the loss of adherents and the movement’s limited impact leads to his main argument: we need a libertarianism that defends markets but recognizes the value that states have in setting up pro-freedom social and economic orders. But Cowen’s answer is not the only answer. There are other roles that libertarians can have.

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Tyler Cowen recently wrote an essay called state capacity libertarianism. Cowen starts by noting that libertarianism is an ideology that loses adherents and has failed to effectively solve any major public policy problems. This can be disputed but that is not my goal. Rather, I want to use Cowen’s essay to motivate a bigger question about the culture of libertarianism: what should libertarians do in a decidedly non-Libertarian society? 

Cowen’s observation about the loss of adherents and the movement’s limited impact leads to his main argument: we need a libertarianism that defends markets but recognizes the value that states have in setting up pro-freedom social and economic orders. But Cowen’s answer is not the only answer. There are other roles that libertarians can have.

First, it helps to assess the relative popularity of libertarianism or classical liberalism. By most accounts, it is fairly unpopular in most societies. Few societies, for example, have market liberal parties that hold power over long periods. At best, they institute some market reforms but then are replaced by more traditional left or right parties. In the United States, polling indicates that only about 1% to 5% of people hold consistently libertarian positions. Most depressingly, only 3% of voters in 2016 chose the Libertarian Party candidate, even though both major party candidates were highly questionable.

So what should libertarians do in the non-libertarian society? There are many answers. And I think all of them are reasonable. Cowen’s state capacity libertarianism is an example of what might be called reformist or participatory liberalism. In other words, based on his understanding of what institutions bolster voluntary activities, like free trade, Cowen argues that libertarians should support strong and effective, but limited, government. He doesn’t see libertarianism as being in tension with society. He sees libertarianism as a part of society that can bolster it’s most effective institutions 

A second strategy for libertarians is what I like to call “Randian retreat.” In Atlas Shrugged, the world’s leading minds retreat to an enclave. No longer willing to tolerate a world that sees capitalism as immoral and achievement as corrupt, John Galt creates a separate self sustaining community. On a more mellow note, Bryan Caplan has a famous blog post about “politely divorcing one’s society.” Admit that you are weird and then build a community of like minded people.

A third strategy is political and revolutionary. In this mode, one uses  political tools to create broad social change. This attitude is best expressed in the 1970s era Libertarian Party. At that time, the LP was seen as a tool for the radical roll back of the American state. It’s platforms were drastic and stark. They weren’t revolutionary in the sense of leading enraged masses to the gates of the White House. But they are revolutionary because a program of strongly libertarian policy would entail the dismantling of many institutions that Americans hold dear.

A fourth strategy is less discussed but no less important: libertarians may seek radical change by enabling non libertarian actors. This may be called “catalytic” libertarianism because libertarian thinkers and activists might see them selves as improving the performance of other groups. 

Catalytic libertarianism is motivated by a simple observation: many of the most freedom enhancing policies have occurred because they were promoted by very non- libertarian actors. The list is vast. Apartheid and Jim Crow were ended by people whose economic view ranged from progressive to socialist. Within the Soviet bloc, anti-communist protests were driven more by a desire for material well being and relief from the stultifying communist party more than a thorough knowledge of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

Thus, a libertarian might make cause with others who promote freedom, even if they base their beliefs in an illiberal framework. By doing so, the libertarian does not surrender their values. Rather, they ensure that libertarian values are at least heard within a movement for change and that there are counter pressures to a movement’s more dangerous tendencies. And once in a while, freedom prevails.

Personally, I tend to work in this enabling “catalytic” mode. I plie my trade in a profession where most colleagues have political values at odds with my own. But I have been to contribute within the environment I have chosen to inhabit.. I also work with progressives and socialists on the open borders issue. One would expect that I’d say that my way is best way and other approaches, like Cowen’s state capacity libertarianism, are off.

But I don’t. I have studied political and social change for decades now and the lesson is that social change is complicated. Cowen’s state capacity approach makes complete sense for making sure that libertarian ideas are heard in the halls of Congress. If you know Tyler Cowen up close, you know that he’s been effective in forging ties with a wide range of people in “the mainstream,” whether it be on support of an institution like the Mercatus Center, using his blog (with Alex Tabarrok) to shape discussions within the economics profession or interviewing a sitting senator. 

I then look at Bryan Caplan, one of my dear friends, who has strongly pursued a Randian approach to libertarianism. As he fondly says, he has “quietly divorced” his society and created a “bubble.” From this position, Bryan has been able to cultivate a very strong libertarian identity which allows him to represent these ideas in Time magazine and the New York Times.

One of the deepest lessons of classical liberal social theory is that any society is a vast, decentralized social order. It is not possible for any single person to completely understand any market or any political institution. Rather, communities must evolve norms and social practices to effectively coordinate action and peacefully resolve conflict. And these rules of social life can allow people to learn what is best in a given situation 

In assessing our own position – the libertarian in a non libertarian society – we should understand that society is complex and many strategies might have value. Though “state capacity” libertarianism may strike many readers as counter intuitive, it is not. Rather, it is one way to engage with a society where state actors are entrusted with providing stability. In that world, we need more people like Cowen to ensure these institutions preserve autonomy. At the same time, we will need other types of libertarianism for other projects and struggles.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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