Viewpoint: Libertarian Pluralism


As the number of people calling themselves libertarians increases, the diversity of this movement is also very likely. And there is nothing surprising about the fact that different factions will rush in to claim that they, not the others, offer the only clean, true, pure representation of libertarianism. This is true in my case, as well. I am convinced that my rendition of the political theory called libertarianism is correct, while renditions which differ from mine are, at least partially, mistaken.

In the capacity of an editor of a magazine which aims at furthering philosophical, political, economic, even psychological improvement in the culture, I must consider the issue of purity alongside several others. First of all, I am working with several people. Second, none of us has any illusions about being experts at producing a journalistically professional magazine. Third, we are financially very limited. Fourth, we are restricted in the talent we can draw on, for ideological reasons. (If this were not so, we probably would not see such a desperate need for our magazine!) Fifth, we are not merely meeting a demand but constantly promoting our ideas, educating, persuading, and explaining, often to people who do not see the value of what we have to offer until after we have done a decent job of communicating our ideas. Sixth, we are not certain about everything that is discussed in the magazine, so we must, in good judgment, leave room for disagreement.

Put all these aspects of our task together and you will see that we have to combine some conflicting or diverse characteristics within the pages of REASON. Sometimes we are going to go out on a limb, featuring pieces that will be thought of as irresponsibly exploratory, simply because those who so judge them will have convinced themselves of certain answers to questions we have not yet answered for ourselves. Sometimes we will seem rigid, because those so judging us will not have settled on a line about some issue which we treat as given in our pages. Sometimes we will seem exciting, because the reader will find topics untouched by others or old topics treated in a new fashion. Others will consider some of what we offer dull, because it does not suit their special concerns or does not take their own expertise or education into consideration.

One charge leveled at our magazine in the last few months has been that we are conservative. "Conservative" is being used here as a smear word, of course, aiming to convey that our perspective has leaned toward positions adopted or advocated by American conservatives such as Bill Buckley. What has been "conservative" in REASON? We have not settled for ourselves the topic of what precisely should we urge the US government to do, given the alternatives under consideration, concerning national defense, military policy, and diplomacy. So we have published articles advocating conflicting positions. Some of these exhort more than argue, partly because space is too short to allow better treatment, partly because that is all we get submitted, partly because we see that a magazine cannot do what major theoretical journals should do, etc. We have sought out well-argued, journalistic articles on foreign-affairs topics but have received nothing publishable beyond what we have published. Some of those who express the greatest moralistic outrage about what we have tolerated in our pages have done absolutely nothing to remedy the situation via their talent and performance.

Yet this does not mean that REASON has settled on some final answer in the foreign affairs area. Some of the editors lean more in one or another direction than others, but we just have not found anything conclusive and widely enough communicated that is compelling.

Then there are those who find us too radical, even outrageous, because we have published essays arguing such points as the validity of atheism. We have discussed abortion and while some letters to the editor have argued the case for prohibitions of all abortion, others have argued that there is no violation of human rights involved in a couple's reasonably early prevention of giving birth to a child. For this we have been denounced but, I should add that we have also received ample praise. (None of which is decisive in what we do, needless to say.)

We have been criticized for permitting Milton Friedman in our pages, as well as for publishing an interview with Timothy Leary. But we have received much praise for the same interviews. Our shorter features, also have drawn fire, as for example our foreign correspondents and satirical features. This column, with its different offerings, has gotten its share of praise and blame. Anarchists have considered REASON irresponsible for giving aid to the Libertarian Party, while Party leaders have criticized us for running articles questioning the LP. We have had a share of venom from all sides, and this is not something we had not expected, nor something we get terribly upset about. We too have given out occasional criticism of those who, when all is said and done, are more likely to be our allies than our adversaries.

But there is a trap that we try to avoid, one others often fall into. This is to focus on the foibles of those who, because they share many of our highest values, would be most likely to understand our kind of criticism. Calling a fellow supporter of political liberty a statist is tempting if you want to hurt him. John Kenneth Galbraith is not going to be awfully offended at that! Calling other libertarians pragmatists, conservatives, collectivist, altruists, irrational, etc., is very tempting because odds are that they really do not like to be any or most of these. But why should Bill Buckley be offended? He may even be proud, as would be George McGovern, with but a slight change of emphasis.

We have tried to focus on our real or primary adversaries. This is a virtue we are proud of. In the process of pressing our charges against real, self-conscious, avowed statists, collectivists, irrationalists, etc., we often step on friendly toes, and that cannot be avoided. When this happens to us—as when an attack on philosophy (which picks a REASON editor for illustration) gets out of hand—we try to consider it a passing vice, a necessary fact of being near the firing line. But even there, a specific reply would waste our time and talent on what is essentially trivia. Given the task we have assumed—at least one that I have assumed in my capacity as an editor of REASON—those issues simply cannot be attended to with the care and professionalism that would carry them off well. Frankly I don't know how to play the one-up-manship game, while others do it virtually by second nature!

It also seems to me that the pluralism we have practiced at REASON (within the essential confines of striving to promote political liberty) makes very good sense. It seems to me that we have actually allowed too much politics in our pages, given that our view of the good society would have so little of it! So we are very proud of REASON. Remember, the magazine is called what it aims to promote everywhere.

Senior editor Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. His Viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with those of Alan Reynolds and Edith Efron.