Libertarian History/Philosophy

Virginia Postrel on Radicals for Capitalism, Libertarianism


If you haven't yet done so, check out former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel's excellent entry in the Cato Unbound discussion of Reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism. Here's a snippet:

Culture, not philosophy, largely accounts for the colorful characters celebrated in Brian Doherty's book (or books-these traditions are also the heritage of Burning Man). And culture, not philosophy, is more often than not what motivates grassroots activists. Cultural libertarianism says This is wrong before figuring out exactly why. Although often expressed in absolutist rules, the better to guard against government encroachment, cultural libertarianism is, by its nature, empirical and consequentialist. It's animated by a vision of personal freedom and worried about what happens in the real world. It can also be entrepreneurial and creative, the source of such radical innovations as home schooling and the personal computer.

Read Postrel's post here.

And check out the whole exchange, including links to blog coverage, here.

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  1. ” I used to be infuriated at the way the Los Angeles Times and other mainstream publications consistently capitalized Libertarian when referring to the magazine or its parent organization, the Reason Foundation.”

    As opposed to now, when the moniker “conservative” is applied to Reason by anyone skewing left of Newt Gingrich. Must be the “if you’re not for us your against us” mentality.

  2. “Cultural libertarianism says This is wrong before figuring out exactly why.”

    my impression is most people form their opinions ad hoc and ad hominem, then retrofit reasons to justify the opinion

  3. biologist,

    Studies of religious belief basically come to that conclusion re: most religious adherants. All the stuff like ‘argument from design’ and what not comes later.

  4. This is an interesting trend of thought on libertarianism coming from Tyler Cowen, VP, and Julian Sanchez – and I am sure many others. But anyway, I am open to here (and ponder) more.

    ..Oh. And it has all been sparked by “Radicals For Cap.” I really need to get off my ass and go buy it all ready.

  5. “Cultural libertarianism says This is wrong before figuring out exactly why.”

    That’s pretty much true of all political groups, no?

  6. Cultural libertarianism says This is wrong before figuring out exactly why.

    Precisely the distinction between libertarianism and objectivism. Objectivists work from fundamentals and absolutes; libertarians too often attempt to reverse-engineer an idea to sanctify a vague thought or feeling.

  7. Superb essay by Postrel. It’s a tad reductionist, but I think her basic point is sound. The reductionism is probably necessary to make her thesis fit in a format shorter than Atlas Shrugged.

  8. joe

    True, very true. Of course libertarianism has a special way, almost cultish way, of of over simplifying everything – i.e. “it’s Econ 101 dude, grow up!”. Its a small tent I guess.

    Of course you of all folks are aware of this.

  9. …cultural libertarianism is, by its nature, empirical and consequentialist.

    That phrase seems to potentially contradict with this one:

    Cultural libertarianism says This is wrong before figuring out exactly why.

    Of course some libertarians might be empirical and consequentialist (I perfer the fancier term deontological myself) in eventually figuring out why, but others might not be. In other words, I don’t see why cultural libertarianism is by its “nature” (whatever the heck that means) is any more wedded to empiricism than any other ideology.

  10. Crap, I perfer the term opposite of deontological, that is utilitarianism.

  11. Steve- I can’t speak for any one else, but I’m very much aware of the libertarian tendency to oversimplify. I blame Rand.

  12. I blame Canada. 🙂

  13. ed,

    Objectivists work from fundamentals and absolutes…

    Given that I’ve met what one might call “gut feeling” objectivists I don’t think that is true of all objectivists.

  14. As opposed to now, when the moniker “conservative” is applied to Reason

    actually I would call it more corporatist. When libertarianism conflicts with corporate interests (as it sometimes does), it is hard to tell which way HnR will go, and it often opts for denial and obfuscation in those conflicts.

  15. Steveintheknow: good call! However, those who yell that only seem to have audited Econ 79!

    joe – you know some of the types here – they all march in rank and file yelling, “I AM AN INDIVIDUAL (demand kurv demand kurv)”

    ed – that’s very interesting. What are some examples from H&R that demonstrate that (about reverse engineering)?

    and wouldn’t that fly in the face of Postrellian Dynamism – trial and error that you can’t predict specific outcomes, just the basic concept of development?

  16. Indeed, given that the ideology is adopted first and then evidence is found for it later, how does one keep the former from influencing how the latter is discovered, thought about, etc.?

  17. Demand Curve!

  18. (Fischer is an anti-libertarian “vital center” liberal in the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. mode, and these are not the only traditions he limns.)

    There’s that word again.

  19. VM,

    Libertarians are probably as prone to groupthink, rally around ideological flag, shutting out lucid opposing opinions, etc. as the adherants of other ideologies. Oh and they are also probably as likely to attribute “false consciousness” to people.

  20. Objectivists work from fundamentals and absolutes

    lol! lololol. objectivists also hate cover versions of songs.

    agreed with VM on a number of points: there’s a lot of ECON 79 that happens in these here comment threads.

    and, to some extent, agreed with dave w. also – there is sometimes a bit too much faith in the benevolence of corporations.

  21. Gro:

    Had to check on false consciousness to be sure, but it seems, at least per wiki, that it might be the other way around – instead of being unaware that the Man is manipulating them, it seems that many here follow a path that people deliberately align themselves based on their own interests (often revolving around not wanting to be challenged – something that we’re guilty of, as well), and are willing to accept “contradictions” when it suits their side and jumps to split hairs at the tiniest deviation by the other side.

    But the groupthink, rally, talking points – totally agreed! DEMAND KURV DEMAND KURV!

  22. VM,

    What I meant was that some libertarians accuse liberals or other groups of false consciousness.

  23. Gro – apologies for missing that. Thanks!

    We’ve definitely seen that here!

    Mr. Crane, you’re right about DW being right about watching out that the “pro business” (whatever the hell that means) can approach mercantilism or corporatarianism (!).

    Corporate welfare is a huge problem. Throw in nationalism and what not, you can get huge problems.

    Blindly saying that “oh, big business likes it, so it must be better than government” is clumsy as it is stupid!

    I mean it’s genuine Randian gibberish!

  24. Matt Damon!

  25. gro: agreed, and that’s also commutative – for whatever reason, people love to accuse the other side of swallowing the kool-aid.

    sometimes, of course, the false-consciousness argument is an attempt to at least give people -some- credit; like, say, arguing that people really are just buying the administration’s pro-war justifications rather than concluding that they do, indeed, consciously support the bellum americana. (do feel free to correct my latin grammar – i have no schooling in latin.)

  26. Demand Damon!

  27. VM – “howard roark is right!”

  28. I gotta ask. I never did get the “Matt Damon” joke in Team America. Anyone care to fill me in?

  29. Mr. Steven Crane & VM,

    Well, when it comes to adoption of any ideology there probably is a “kool-aid” period for most people. You often see this in the zeal of new religious converts for example. Some people escape that and others don’t.

  30. Of course some of that zeal is what makes a new ideology fun.

  31. This moose doesn’t get it either. Apparently, from those who Claim To Get The Joke, it’s because he’s, like, real dumb n shit.

    I really like it here, whenever the Econ 79 crowd starts yelling stuff like that 🙂

    [formulating a thought, need some help, about yesterday’s pile on joe – something about how robust the entrepreneurial spirit is here that it’s not a house of cards that’ll tumble down whenever public solution gets bantered around. Aren’t we interested in the most “efficient” solutions? and what do we care about the sources? or if one really doubts that an outcome that we can observe would have been “more efficient” with a “private” solution, how can we determine that?]

  32. Maybe someone’s covered this already, but seems like the difference between cultural and philosophical libertarianism (if I understand Postrel correctly) is that the latter applies itself across the board, not just to one’s pet concern. The problem is that people often want to protect their own rights (and those of their friends and with whom they empathize) while ignoring the rights of others. Seems like libertarianism will make headway when people see protection of their own rights in the protections of others’. Judging only by this snippet, Postrel seems to be championing cultural libertarianism as more real or something. But (again, if I’m understanding her correctly) it’s only a starting off point and by itself is mere rights-NIMBYism.

  33. “I gotta ask. I never did get the “Matt Damon” joke in Team America. Anyone care to fill me in?”

    I wondered about it, too. It just struck me as real personal. Perhaps Matt (and Ben Affleck) pissed them off at some Hollywood Party around town so they decided to get even there.

  34. VM,

    He never struck me as being dumb. He was smart enough to write (along with Affleck) and sell Good Will Hunting.

  35. In the vein of buisness and government going together like ‘flys and the undead’, George Will has an intersting peice in Town Hall about the Interior Design “guild” of Arizona.

  36. Gro:

    Family Guy also rips him – actually suggesting that only B.A. wrote GWH. Dunno. Higbug’s idea sounds good.

  37. VM,

    Check this out:

    Note that there is some cursing in the clip.

  38. “The trick is to find genuinely shared values. A political movement, as opposed to a tactical alliance, must be united by more than agreement on a single issue (“I’m against farm subsidies. You’re against farm subsidies. Let’s get together.”)”

    This strikes me as naive. We live in a nation of coalitional politics. These coalitions are exactly the opposite of a shared value system. Success in the long run is convincing people that libertarian POLICIES make their lives better. The culture of libertarianism is, at the end of the day, a set of value preferences. We aren’t going to make substantially more libertarians in that sense. I’m just not going to convince joe that distribution egalitarianism is utterly unimportant.

    Where we can make a difference is in consistency and consequences. That is, we can challenge people who advocate X policy on the basis of personal liberty, who claim personal liberty is of importance to them, but who then advocate policy Y that is disruptive to that value. We can also suggest that though they believe such and such a regulation will improve things, they aren’t looking at the total set of negatives. Notoriously, these arguments can highlight opportunity costs and public choice considerations.

  39. Steven Crane,

    That clip is really funny. I wonder how much time they had to spend in advance to pull that joke off.

  40. Matt Demand!

  41. just fyi, damon and affleck are friends with teh south park guys, and apparently it was just very funny to have the character in team america only say “MATT DAMON” over and over again.

  42. Objectivists are obligated to consider one precept above all when formulating an opinion, thought or course of action:

    WWAD? What Would Ayn Do?

  43. dhex,

    It was sort of funny at first, just for the sheer act of him doing it, but then it got stupid.

  44. Gro: wow! That was hilarious! That was a planned event, wasn’t it?

  45. Is “false consciousness” the same thing as “stupidity”? Just asking.

    I can’t speak for any one else, but I’m very much aware of the libertarian tendency to oversimplify.

    Perhaps this is an illusion created by the libertarian belief in minimal government, which pushes complexity out of the state level and into the voluntary social and individual levels of society.

    At the level of government, libertarianism is by definition a relatively simple philosophy. For people who tend to discount anything that isn’t sponsored or enforced by the state, this probably looks like “oversimplification.”

  46. R.C. Dean,

    No, it is not the same as stupidity. It does have a lot to do with various theories of the sociology of knowledge though.

  47. VM,

    Yeah, I would assume so.

  48. Great essay. Besides the ones that Postrel mentioned, there are lots of other strains of cultural libertarianism that influenced me early on: watching too many TV westerns, a third-grade lesson on the Bill of Rights that I took to heart, my rancher grandpa’s cussed anti-gubm’nt self-sufficiency.

  49. Oh, and being a little kid watching the whole hippy Sixties thing.

  50. It really isn’t all that complicated, for all of the econ mumbo-jumbo you see here and elsewhere.

    –all politics originates from self-interest.

    –libertarianism is nothing more or less than the elevation of liberty as the primary political virtue. Note I said “primary”, not “only”.

    This is why “liberaltarianism” will never work, and why the marriage of convenience between economic and religious conservatives has frayed. Left/liberals and today’s religious conservatives value some form or another of communal virtue higher than they do liberty.

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