Posts Tagged ‘Libertarianism’

On whether it’s just a phase

Posted on March 3, 2014 at 9.15 pm

Q. What would you say to someone who thinks that being a libertarians is “just a phase” or that it’s “just a transitional period between political beliefs” and what are your personal thoughts on those concepts? — Rachel, from the internet.

A. Well, it would be silly to deny that libertarianism is a transitional phase for some people, because certainly it is — but so is every political philosophy or movement.

And it would also be silly, I think, to deny that libertarianism has something of a natural recruiting advantage among the young (who are not always very stable in their political beliefs) for several reasons:

First, while I believe liberty politics can and should be intensely practical, there are also aspects of it which are very idealistic. For better and worse, the young tend toward idealism, so the broad strokes of libertarianism — personal freedom, peace, free markets, and equal rights — have a strong appeal.

Second, though libertarianism is growing in popularity, it’s still comparatively unknown. And, frankly, there’s an allure to that, particularly for those exploring their own political ideas for the first time.

Third, novels like the works of Ayn Rand and George Orwell, while not technically libertarian, are very liberty-friendly — and also commonly assigned high school reading. As a result, many young people read these works, are temporarily riled up for the cause of liberty, and then later decide they believe something else or perhaps simply don’t care about politics at all. Thus, their libertarianism is dubbed “just a phase.”

Is any of this really a strike against libertarianism? I don’t think so.

Because here’s the thing: Every political philosophy gains and loses converts. Idealism is not a bad thing. And getting interested in something because your parents don’t know what it is or you read a really engaging novel doesn’t mean that you’re interested in something worthless — it might just mean that you’re 17.

That said, while there’s nothing wrong with being 17, I’d say that unless you’re a super-genius, there probably is something wrong with keeping the exact same political views and level of knowledge that you have at 17. It’s just that 17 is pretty young, and as you gain more life experience and learn more about the political issues which are important to you, your views will likely evolve and become more nuanced, even while possibly (hopefully!) maintaining that central commitment to liberty.

So while libertarianism itself isn’t just a transitional phase, the libertarianism you have at 17 probably should be. And that, I think, is the kind of libertarianism most people have in mind when they make this sort of “It’s just a phase” accusation. It’s honestly something of a straw man argument, and as long as you’re continuing to increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge (at any age), I wouldn’t be too concerned about it.

See also:

On the most libertarian country

Posted on February 13, 2014 at 2.20 pm

Q. I think a lot of libertarian ideas sound awesome in theory, but I know theory and practice aren’t always the same. So I was wondering, is any country actually libertarian? If not, which comes closest? — youarethegreenwonderofjune, from tumblr.

A. Well, this is tricky, because it depends on how you measure it.

For instance, this map is a reasonably reliable measure of different types of economic freedoms — but economic measures alone can vary wildly by country. The US, for example, gets a terrible score on government spending and a comparatively strong score for property rights (though it’s hardly ideal, as this story I just posted demonstrates). Generally, for economic liberty, Hong Kong tops the charts, and places like Switzerland and Singapore are close runners-up.

If we look at press freedom, though, we get a totally different picture.The highest rankings here are mostly in northern and western Europe, and America is nowhere near the top (we’re #46, a big drop from last year thanks to all these NSA revelations). Many of the Asian countries which rank comparatively high on economic freedom are near the bottom of the list for speech freedom.

Then there’s the Freedom House ranking, which seeks to be a little more comprehensive, and gives a lot of attention to corruption, representative government, and civil liberties. They use broad categories (partly free, not free, and free), which makes a less colorful map. It’s an interesting list, but doesn’t get very specific.

Then there are one-off attempts to rank the “most libertarian” countries, and they usually leave much to be desired. This one rightly points out that Portugal pretty much ended its drug war, but also (possibly as a joke?) includes North Korea because marijuana is technically legal there. Here’s another list which puts Ireland at the top of the list, but doesn’t offer much reasoning for that choice. Of all the articles I’ve read on the subject, this one from The American Conservative is likely the most thoughtful. As it comments:

[The question of why we can’t name a single “most libertarian” country makes] little sense when you replace “libertarianism” with, say, “atheism” or “environmentalism” or “feminism.” Operating in a liberal-democratic system that is driven by what Isaiah Berlin described as “value pluralism,” libertarian intellectuals and activists aim at affecting the world of ideas and the political process through the policy concepts they propose, not at establishing a Utopia based on their principles.

From that perspective, it’s difficult to argue that libertarian or classical-liberal ideas as they apply to economic policies—a.k.a. “free-market ideology”—haven’t had a dramatic impact in the last four decades or so. […]

That didn’t transform anyplace on earth into a libertarian Utopia, to be sure. In fact, Singapore, which [economically can be considered] an example of a libertarian state, is if anything the ultimate Nanny State, while the economic liberalization of Chile took place under a military dictatorship.

As the American Conservative article concludes, we would likely be able to point to more specifically libertarian accomplishments here in the United States if we had a parliamentary system which promoted multi-party coalitions — which we currently very much do not.

So, all that said, I guess my answer is this: There is no one purely libertarian country in the world, and it’s difficult to name a single “most libertarian” country because all nations have good policies in some areas and bad policies in others. Hopefully the resources I’ve listed here can guide you into looking more at how specific liberty-friendly policies have played out in real life circumstances, though they may indeed operate in a philosophically inconsistent context.

Liberty is polling well…very well.

Posted on January 30, 2014 at 12.18 pm

As public trust in government hits record lows, libertarian positions on major policy issues are booking record support across the board. Polls show solid majorities of Americans agree with the liberty perspective on:

Now, this isn’t to say that the majority of the country is libertarian. We know that’s not the case (about a quarter are). But it is to say that we have a fairly unique consensus on the libertarian policy agenda, broadly speaking. Sure, the consensus for much of this may be more moderate than we libertarians would like (e.g. just auditing instead of ending the Fed; legalizing only marijuana instead of ending the whole drug war), but can any other major political perspective boast such comprehensive majorities on foreign, economic, and social policies alike? I don’t think so.

It’s also worth noting that in the polls which show a trend direction on these issues, overall movement typically is in a pro-liberty direction, as are generational differences (generally, younger people are more libertarian than their elders).

Certainly the import of this collection is not to be overstated, but nonetheless I find it a hopeful set of data — and a welcome antidote to last night’s speech.

Note: With two exceptions from 2011 (I had trouble finding more recent polls on those subjects), all of these majorities are from 2013 (mostly December) and 2014.