David R. Henderson  

Henderson on the Libertarian "Thing"

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Last weekend, our local newspaper, the Monterey County Herald, ran this Associated Press story by Nicholas Riccardi. The article is more interesting than the headline would suggest because its author found libertarian elements in the political shift in the west. It had elements of what I blogged about after the November elections. I responded to the AP article with a letter that was published today. I reprint the whole thing because the link will likely be no good after some time:

It is heartening that Democratic Party strategist Bill Carrick recognizes the somewhat libertarian shift in the Western U.S. electorate ("West Taking Sharp Left Turn," Jan. 27.) But one quote from Carrick shows a basic misunderstanding of libertarian views and principles.

Carrick states, "The libertarian thing is no longer about property rights or gun rights. It's now about letting people live their lives as they choose."

On the contrary, the libertarian "thing" has always been about letting people live their lives as they choose. And their right to use their property as they choose and to defend themselves with guns is still part of that.

Consider property rights. Governments in California and elsewhere in the West often prevent people from adding a bathroom, adding an extra room or cutting down a tree without government permission. These are all violations of property rights, just as restrictions on gay marriage or using marijuana violate their other rights.

Libertarianism is still the only philosophy that consistently advocates freedom across the board.


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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Brad Warbiany writes:

I wonder to what extent Democratic successes are related not to libertarians voting for Democrats, but perhaps to libertarians not voting at all (or actually voting LP)?

There used to exist a much stronger libertarian/Republican coalition, but Republican failures to be fiscal conservatives and doubling down on being social conservatives have disgusted many libertarians (myself included) such that I can't bring myself to vote Republican. I sure as hell won't vote Democrat, though. So I vote LP now.

How many more like me are out there? Would the Republicans experience a resurgence if they conceded the culture wars and focused on reducing the scope of government?

djf writes:

I am not a libertarian, although I more often than not agree with libertarians on economic and fiscal issues. I suggest that libertarians ought to ask themselves this: granting that neither the left nor the right in America shares your philosophical commitment to "freedom across the board," which is the greater danger to that commitment: the right's threat to "lifestyle" liberty or the left's threat to economic liberty?

I think it's pretty clear, at this late date, that the former "threat" is almost entirely theoretical.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brad Warbiany,
Would the Republicans experience a resurgence if they conceded the culture wars and focused on reducing the scope of government?
My gut feel is that they would. I'm going to try this out on the local Republican Women's group in early March.

Tom Nagle writes:

Great letter David. There may be a few people out there who still think that holding a principle consistently across issues is a virtue. If so, your letter might win them over.

sourcreamus writes:

The libertarian position on gay marriage is puzzling to me. If any two people in America want to rent a church and have a commitment ceremony it is legal and no government will try to stop them. If a business wants to extend spousal health care to lovers no government will try to stop them.
Yet after gay marriage is passes citizens who do not want to provide services to gay weddings are sued and businesses are forced to treat gay marriages the same as real ones.
Shouldn't the libertarian position be the one where the people get to decide what marriage is and not the government?

Ken B writes:

In fairness to the article, many see "the Libertarian thing" as being just about property rights because many Libertarians argue all rights are property rights. I run across this all the time when I argue for markets and laissez faire: the perception I must think all rights are property rights.

Let me rephrase Brad's question:
Would the Libertarians experience a boom if they conceded property isn't the basis of everything and focused on reducing the scope of government?

I think the answer is yes, as it is to Brad's original question.

Tom Nagle writes:

What planet is commenter "djf" living on if he thinks that the right's threat to "lifestyle" liberty "is almost entirely theoretical". Has he not heard that our prisons are full of people who are being punished for voluntarily consuming drugs or selling them to willing buyers? Has he not heard that people who have lived almost their entire lives in America, have been educated here, and are hard working are being deported to satisfy the wishes of the right? Has he not read about the 100s of people being freed from imprisonment for capital crimes they did not commit only after organizations like "The Innocence Project" have fought right wing prosecutors for the right to test the DNA evidence? How many 1000s more people are still in prison because there is no DNA evidence to expose their unjust convictions? I could go on (e.g., no right to end my own life in case of terminal illness) but I think I've made the point. Left wing retrictions on "economic" freedom tend to be widely spread and thus tolerable for each individual even while collectively of great consequence to our economy. Right wing restrictions on "lifestyle" freedom tend to be devastatingly oppressive for a smaller number of unfortunate people.

drobviousso writes:

Tom Nagle - Sadly, those threats to liberty aren't just coming from the Right any more.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom Nagle,
Thanks.
@sourcreamus,
Shouldn't the libertarian position be the one where the people get to decide what marriage is and not the government?
Yes. And your other points are good ones. The problem is that even when they decide what marriage is, the government often doesn't respect their decision.

Doug writes:

Not related to libertarianism per se, but related to the original article.

If you compare the election results of 2000 to 2012 the counties with the biggest shift to Democrat were heavily concentrated in the Western rockies (as the original article implies). On the other side though the counties with the biggest shift Republican were the suburban areas of the major Northeastern. New York, Philly, Boston, Baltimore, etc.

In Mass. for example rural areas are now heavily Democrat (also exemplified by NH's shift left), Boston core is heavily Democrat, but Boston suburbs are now largely Republican, with some counties actually going fully red.

This is consistent with the general observation that the most consistently conservative group in the US are now ethnic whites: italians, irish, poles, to a lesser extent scandinavians.

This is quite a shift since these groups were the core of the New Deal state, with WASPs being the bulwark of the conservative opposition. But WASPs are now running headlong into the left, with the attendant cultural phenomenon of hipster-ism. Middle class ethnic whites are now the backbone of the Republican party.

sourcreamus writes:

Locking up criminals and the drug laws have not been a partisan issue in almost twenty years. Most big cities vote 80% plus for Democrats and have for decades. Yet no large cities have decriminalized drugs. Point to one blue state where the legislature has decriminalized drugs.Democrats had control of the House, Senate, and Presidency from 2009-2011 and did nothing about the drug laws in this country.
However taxes are going up wherever liberals have control of the government. You can choose a high tax anti-drug party, a low tax anti-drug party or you can choose a third party.

djf writes:

From his conclusion, Tom Nagle does not seem to be a person who genuinely cares much about economic liberty, but rather to be the sort of leftist whose approval libertarians crave for reasons I don't understand. As to his points:

1. As far as I know, there is no significant difference between the parties on drug laws. For whatever it's worth, most thoughtful conservatives support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, as would I. As for sellers and users of hard drugs, I gather that Mr. Nagle would not object to such people moving next door to him.

2. Immigration is not an issue of the freedom of the kind of action available to people who are already living here lawfully, but of who gets to join this society. What outsiders we permit to become members of our society has a profound effect on those of us who already live here. I don't see why self-seeking business firms should be allowed to make this decision for the rest of us, any more than they should be allowed to decide for the rest of us what substances can be dumped in rivers and lakes. Of course, now that the Republican establishment seems to be about to join with the Democrats in enacting immigration "reform," we can expect our remaining economic liberty to be even further diminished. Happy, libertarians? (BTW, in response to Nagle's conclusion, the costs of immigration are NOT evenly spread through the society.)

3. The idea that "rightwing" prosecutors are responsible for all wrongful convictions is beyond silly. (In New York City, for example, the DAs in at least 4 of the 5 boroughs have been Democrats for decades. The last Republican DA in Manhattan was probably Tom Dewey in the 30s.) And is Mr. Nagle unaware that leftwing prosecutors have their own tendency to engage in ideological witch hunts that get people imprisoned on dubious grounds? In fact, our distinguished president saw fit to break with tradition and comment publicly on one such pending case about a year ago - perhaps you heard of it.

4. Nagle apparently does not consider the possibilities of abuse opened up by "assisted suicide" laws. Anyway, this is a state law issue, and it seems absurd to me that a real libertarian would vote for Obama for president, say, simply because Democrats at the state leve, in some states, are friendlier to legalizing "assisted suicide."

What I had in mind, of course, was the "lifestyle liberty" issue that gets by far the most attention, namely, reproductive and sexual freedom. For good or ill, conservatives have been remarkably ineffective in limiting this kind of freedom, and there seems scant likelihood of this changing (quite the contrary - opposition to recognition of gay marriage is collapsing). So it seems to me that it is ridiculous for genuine libertarians to support the Democrats over the Republicans because of some theoretical disagreement with a large GOP constituency over abortion or the moral status of homosexuality.
But, then again, libertarians, for all of their good ideas in the area of pure economics, do not seem terribly realistic about other aspects of social existence.

ThoamasH writes:

I think the perception of many people has been that libertarians focused almost exclusively on property rights (and at the Federal level) and not on same-sex marriage, drug criminalization, state ownership of airport security services, zoning for low density, in general a sort of "no enemies on the right" posture. Things and perceptions are changing now.

john hare writes:

A local 912 group consistently bashes Libertarians as part of the reason for Obamas' reelection. They also have the slogan, "In matters of principle, stand like a rock." A Libertarian friend of mine about choked on his coffee tonight when I told him, "In matters of principle, stand like a rock,(he nods) unless you're a Libertarian in which case you should shut up and toe the Republican party line." Then we both laughed and glanced over at one of the worst offenders. I really think it is the myopic refusal to understand other viewpoints that is most damaging to Republicans.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Libertarianism is the logical climax of starting from individuals and viewing society as derived from the coalescence of individuals via some form of social contract.
This views individuals as sovereign and the society as a convenience for individuals.

The classical view is regarding society as more basic than the individual. Thus, the individuals and families are always pictured as being in the society. The society is viewed as having three irreducible levels: the State, the Family and the Individual.

The classical view yields a distinction between national territory and individual ownerships that exist within the national territory. The ownerships are justified by a series of arguments, ultimately to the moral premise that a man is entitled to the fruit of his labor.
The national territory is held by force and requires no justification.
This yields distinction between thefts (always wrong) and conquest (not always wrong).
This is so, because a theft is a violation of rational nature of man and of the rational order man exists in.
But a territory is held by force and it does not violate the rational order if it is conquered by force.

The libertarian theory can not make sense of distinction between national territory and private ownerships and resorts to ad-hoc unsatisfactory dodges like calling Govt the owner of all the national territory.

MG writes:

I agree with djf, and would add that Libertarians should be wary of selling out so cheaply.

Up until a couple of moronic GOP candidates gave Democrats the opening they needed to make a bogus social issue ("banning birth control") the stick with which to beat the entire GOP over the head, the bulk of the attack on the GOP was that it was being taken over by callous Libertarians (in the form of the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, and then the heartless Paul Ryan). You would have even thought Mitt Romney was a leading character out of a Ayn Rand novel. (This would turn off blue collar Ohioans.) Any turn away from the collectivization of the indidual spirit and from fiscal bankrupcy was a turn towards selfishness and would result in an avalanche of grandmas down cliffs.

Political liberals are only interested in cherry-picking Libertarianism, and worse, the basis for their selective support is often less than uplifting. When personal liberty is extolled, it is far more likely to resemble libertinism than liberty. When international self-restraint is demanded, it is rarely because it is a wise principle per se, but because America is uniquely unqualified to lead, and indeed must tow the line set by unrestrained supra-national organizations. (Of course, at times it does look like while we wait, we can continue to do anything we want, so far as the media agrees to call what we are doing something else or not to focus on it.)

Ken B writes:

I want second Tom Nagle and drobviusso. Here's a scary example: the war on pain relief. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get pain relief medicine for serious or chronic pain. Reason has a good series of articles if you want to search. I know the head of anesthesia at a major medical school and he is concerned about the growing difficulty of treating his patients.
We are all just an accident away from needing such meds; many of us have elderly parents.

This assault on liberty, leading to so much suffering, is driven from both left and right. From the right it emerges as an extension of the war on drugs. The "need" to prevent street sales is used to justify these torturous restrictions. From the left hostility to Big Pharma and the usual new agey hostility to pharmacological treatment in general. (I see this same hostilty in regards to anti-dpressant and the like too.)

(Disclaimer: my better half works in the pharma industry.)

Ken B writes:

DRH (My emphasis)

Libertarianism is still the only philosophy that consistently advocates freedom across the board.
I just want to note I do not think this is true. David will object to the term but there is a large isolationist streak amongst Libertarians. It is not at all clear to me that, to cite just three examples, the liberty of those conquered by Japan would have been advanced by the US not fighting WWII, nor the liberty of South Koreans by abstaining from the Korean war, nor that the liberty of Granadans was not served by Reagan's intervention. So I am not convinced that Libertarians are the strongest advocates liberty quite across all boards.

shecky writes:
Libertarianism is still the only philosophy that consistently advocates freedom across the board.

If only you can get self described libertarians to actually believe this.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Virtually all Americans accept the libertarian premise, that the individual is supreme and he gives up some freedom when he joins the society.
Thus, true freedom is to be found at the Frontier and not within the cities. The cities are merely a convenience. Now, the city is not longer so convenient so the libertarian merely wishes to renegotiate the social contract.

However, the American practice is still classical in treating the State as supreme and this disconnect between the American theory and practice infuriates the libertarian.

The libertarianism engages in a reduction performed on the society similar to the reduction performed by modern science on matter.

Science now treats all things as merely atoms in motion with the Form emerging from the dynamics, contra the classical view that sees Form as an imposition on matter.

Similarly, the libertarian sees the fundamental social reality being Individuals and the Family and the self-ruling City being emergent out of Individuals.

Doing so, he necessarily generates puzzles such as deriving from the nature of property, justice, solidarity. He has no good resolution for the fact that the Individuals submit themselves to the State (i.e. self-ruling City) and feel themselves called upon to sacrifice themselves for its sake. The nature of sovereign justice too escapes him. The libertarian must make do with arbitration.

Taras writes:

Ken B

I just want to note I do not think this is true. David will object to the term but there is a large isolationist streak amongst Libertarians. It is not at all clear to me that, to cite just three examples, the liberty of those conquered by Japan would have been advanced by the US not fighting WWII, nor the liberty of South Koreans by abstaining from the Korean war, nor that the liberty of Granadans was not served by Reagan's intervention. So I am not convinced that Libertarians are the strongest advocates liberty quite across all boards.

Ken, libertarians aren't just against the US government but against all states. I can speak for myself at least, and as much as I am averse to the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan, I am equally against FDR launching into a war.

Wars and covert operations never create the desired effects. Japan was an ally in WWI, then an enemy in WWII. The Soviets were allied in WWII then the enemy for the next 40 years. There was not any meaningful gain in freedom from the intervention, especially when you consider the internment camps, rations, price controls, and taxes implemented domestically. These acts by the state slowed down economic growth which is the real driver of civilization.

Ken B writes:

Taras (my bold):

as much as I am averse to the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan, I am equally against FDR launching into a war

With respect Taras, you are illustrating not refuting my criticism.
There was not any meaningful gain in freedom from the intervention

I take it by 'intervention', you mean WWII. Again I'm afraid I feel more vindicated than refuted here. You are doing just exactly what I took issue with in David's comments: not considering quite all the boards.

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