The Difference Between Civil Libertarians And Selfish Jerks

This piece in Slate about libertarian philospher Robert Nozick has engendered quite a bit of online chatter and it’s very much worth reading if you are interested in the intellectual underpinnings of that side of our economic debates. There are lots of responses around the sphere, but this defense of libertarianism called “Libertarians Aren’t All Selfish Jerks” by Conor Friedersdorf caught my eye because this argument is so commonly wielded at liberals and it deserves a response. He refers to a number of libertarians who are working on such topics as the drug war and prison reform and terrorism policy etc (along with one of the hip libertarian issues of the day — onerous licensing of low wage service workers like hairdressers) and then writes:

There are a lot of libertarians working on issues that could be construed as self-interested – lowering taxes is the obvious example. There are even some hard core Ayn Rand sycophants who embrace little more than themselves. Find that repugnant? Have at ’em! But you’re just misinformed if you think that libertarians as a whole care for nothing more than their self-interest. Countless libertarians are working to advance the freedom and fair-treatment of people other than themselves. Often they do so more consistently than some of the liberals who sneer at them.

I don’t sneer at those libertarians at all. Indeed, I consider myself to be one of them. But I qualify it with the word “civil” in front of it.

Here’s how our friend Wikipedia describes it:

Civil libertarianism is not a complete ideology; rather, it is a collection of views on the specific issues of civil liberties and civil rights. Because of this, a civil libertarian outlook is compatible with many other political philosophies, and civil libertarianism is found on both the right and left of modern politics.

That is quite distinct from the hardcore libertarian philosophy as espoused by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (although his philosophy of individual liberty also applies to other areas). In fact, libertarian economics is the specific topic of the essay in question. So, using civil libertarianism to sell libertarian ideology, particularly in this case, is a misdirection.

Many liberals work in common cause with libertarians on a whole string of issues. From time to time even a principled conservative joins in although it’s rare because they tend to have a philosophical bent toward authoritarianism. I suppose some liberals sneer at the ACLU, but it’s not nearly as harsh as what you hear from conservatives. And many of us are major supporters while I would doubt that even 1% of Republicans give money to the organization.

Where liberals part ways is in extending our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and civil rights to include a prohibition against redistribution of wealth, regulation or common social purpose. And that last is what the Nozick essay is about.

I identify strongly as a civil libertarian and support most of those causes that Friedersdorf uses as examples of unselfish libertarianism. I have had many a stimulating (if ultimately frustrating) conversation with thoughtful libertarians on economics. Although I think they have a utopian view of how humans organize and behave I have a grudging admiration for their consistency, however much I disagree with it. What I sneer at is the growing popularity of this Randroid libertarianism, which I see as intellectually shallow and definitely based in adolescent selfishness.

Those libertarians don’t care about police brutality or indefinite detention of terrorist suspects. That side of libertarianism doesn’t even exist for them. And sadly, those issues also seem to take a backseat for most self-identified libertarians who, when asked to choose, tend to go with the Randroid conservatives who care about taxes over the liberals who care about civil liberties. I’ll leave it to others to sort out why that is.

Anyway, the Nozick piece is interesting because the author puts the rise of libertarian thought in the historical context of the huge post-war boom in a way I hadn’t thought of before, which explains how the great influx of government money throughout the economy gave perverse rise to the distorted belief that such support was unnecessary.

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