Arnold Kling  

The Fissaparous Libertarians

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Highlights from "Does Technolo... David Friedman on Bleeding Hea...

Look up fissaparous in the dictionary and you will find


Inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups.

You will also find a picture of the libertarian movement.

1. At the first Mont Pelerin Society meeting, Mises reportedly complained that you're a bunch of socialists.

2. More than one person has compared libertarians to Communist intellectuals, who also were notably fissaporous (Lenin and Stalin used rather harsh methods to address the problem).

3. The Cato-Koch controversy has been played up as an ideological split. I, however, still think of it as corporate soap opera. In my first book, Under the Radar, I talk about how difficult it is for partnership agreements to hold up under changing circumstances. I found it very common for a start-up to divide shares in a company equally and then have one partner lose interest or confidence in the company and walk away--but without anyone rewriting the agreement to give the remaining partners a bigger share in the company. You can imagine what happens years later.

Between 1996 and 1999 we must have had 5 different partnership agreements in my company. The structure of the business changed rapidly, and maintaining an appropriate legal agreement was a challenge. So if Cato and the Kochs are still trying to operate under an agreement from 30-plus years ago....well, good luck to them. That sounds like a sure-fire disaster even if there were zero ideological differences.

4. The recent dust-up over bleeding-heart libertarians, liberaltarians, or what have you. My only comment is that liberaltarianism seemed particularly attractive deep into the Bush Presidency. It seems particularly unattractive deep into the Obama Presidency. I am afraid that there is an iron law which says that politicians will betray whatever libertarian allies they attract.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
VangelV writes:

You are missing the point. If you believe in principles it is difficult to 'compromise' when you need those principles to justify a very unpopular position. That is not a problem for moral relativists and people who choose to argue that some policy or another should be pursued to meet some 'societal' goal as if society were some monolithic entity.

I would argue that 99.9% of libertarians understand this and for that reason stick to a very small group of issues. Of course, even a moral relativist who dismisses the idea of natural rights can choose to call himself a libertarian. But that does not make him one.

My example is Milton Friedman. He did not base his arguments on principle. As such he became a tool of those who were for an all powerful state by supporting many of the activities that the state choose to engage in and limited his arguments to efficiency arguments. This is why many young people have dismissed Frieman and have moved towards Rothbard's ideas instead.

chipotle writes:
I am afraid that there is an iron law which says that politicians will betray whatever libertarian allies they attract.

Why is this surprising or even interesting? The goal of libertarians is to disempower politicians (the rulers) and to empower their subjects/citizens (the ruled).

Daniel Klein writes:

Subdividing is a central theme in Adam Smith, and you see it all over this writings, in varied manifestations ...

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

Here follows an extract from a comment over at the Law and Liberty section of the LF site, under BHL IV of April 27, 2012

"The focus of concern is “the effects of the form of representative government on the poor.”
(as the contents of the text disclose)

"In its present iteration, this form has become the representation of interests rather than a representation of commonly held principles of former ideology.

"The citations in the text of actions, “programs,” “regulations,” “public education” all reference or imply functions of government. The text does not include a reference to “utilitarian” tests for those functions. They seem to be “assumed” as accepted or necessary [?] functions.

"The fundamental issues in Libertarianism are the functions of government and the effects of those functions on Liberty.

"There is nothing wrong with showing, as the text does, the effects of those functions on the poor (or on any segment). There is nothing wrong with saying that in addition to those effects on Liberty (of prime concern to Libertarians) there should be [equal?]concern with other effects


"However, such demonstration of the effects of those functions, without an examination of how those functions have come into being, in their particular shapes, through the representation of interests in a representative form of government will lead nowhere."

Now, if BHL were limited to:

"saying that in addition to those effects on Liberty (of prime concern to Libertarians) there should be [equal?]concern with other effects."
That would be a call for "opening of hearts." But, to go further, and suggest that "concern for the poor" or correcting perceived maladjustments of the distributive system should be an objective of the functions of government for libertarians, is not fissiparous; it is a different political concept; opposing to, and destructive of, Libertarian objectives.

Becky Hargrove writes:

We do not yet have a real context for the BHL to exist, in that the economic pie has not yet been restructured to allow knowledge to truly be a part of the pie itself. (the pie presently measures grafted portions of knowledge instead of aggregate utilizations of seed knowledge) Until knowledge and human skills are measured by time components instead of as a residual of monetary production, the pie will remain essentially the same.

tom writes:

My favorite article on the difficulties that company founders have in changing a growing company is this one about Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Allen shows that it takes a prick to build a company.

John Thacker writes:

Difficult to read the first comment as anything other than an (ironic?) confirmation of the original point.

Politicians betray libertarians ultimately because libertarian ideas are not popular enough with the populace. Libertarian principles are broadly popular, but far too many people "make exceptions" on whatever the popular issue of the day is.

David P writes:

Sometimes the libertarian movement feels like a bunch of Methodists and Episcopalians arguing over which side is going to hell.

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