Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Libertarian Movement: Too Extremist, Too Moderate, or Just Right?

Did Barry Goldwater's famous quote about "extremism in the defense of liberty" deform the libertarian movement?

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Some interesting recent sprouts in the fertile field of libertarian activists and polemicists arguing about appropriate or effective techniques for same, launched by the Niskanen Center's Will Wilkinson's two-part essay (highly shared and lauded in social network spaces where libertarians dwell) trying to totally destroy, as the kids say on the internet, the famous statement from Barry Goldwater's 1964 acceptance speech for the Republican Party's nomination: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of liberty justice is no virtue."

That Goldwater slogan, Wilkinson thinks, has warped libertarian brains ever since. As Wilkinson notes, the words were "put" in the speech by future libertarian movement firebrand Karl Hess, though Hess in his memoir Mostly on the Edge says he got the phrase from Straussian superstar Harry Jaffa. Credit or blame for it is a muddy trail Wilkinson strolls down at his leisure.

The first part reads mostly like pure intellectual history of the phrase, and has little obvious relevance to the contemporary libertarian scene or the Niskanen Center's mission. Wilkinson brings out, amidst the aforementioned twisty and inconclusive forensic history of the phase, that it could (or even should) be interpreted to defend violence, that southern racists believed their violent extremism against black civil rights was in defense of their liberty, and that Timothy McVeigh blew up a lot of people in what he thought was a protest against government attacks on liberty.

Since no one in the modern aboveground libertarian movement openly advocates murderous violence (or seem openly inspired by Goldwater's phrase much even if they disagree that it means "murderous violence in defense of liberty is OK"), one must go to part two, focused on "moderation," for modern relevance.

Wilkinson stresses he's concerned with practicality. If one can achieve victories for liberty by means of persuasion, and not the "extremism" of violence (with Lincoln's actions in the Civil War as an example of the latter), surely that's preferable? Surely, and persuasion is what libertarians try to do, more or less successfully.

When libertarians accuse others of being insufficiently extreme in their libertarianism, it's generally not about the means (always persuasion of some sort, in some arena) but the ends. Milton Friedman's polemical success in eliminating the draft is labeled a victory for "moderation" because it was based in persuasion and not violence. One could argue that Friedman's goal, though, was extreme in calling for a complete end to the draft, not to just limiting its application or widening loopholes or limiting its time periods or raising soldiers' salaries. It didn't seek a small change in the draft; it called for a huge, one might even call "extreme," change.

But Wilkinson says:

In terms of practical life, political or otherwise, moderation in principle means hammering out workable compromises with people who hold to different principles….This need not be understood as moderation in the sense of watering down our principles, or admitting that they are wrong in order to get along. Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King, Jr. never backed down from their radical principles. We need "moderation in principle" in the sense of being willing to negotiate toward public rules that do not perfectly conform with our principles, and to abide by those rules, even as we act to change them in the direction of our principles….

A free-for-all of extremism isn't likely to bring anyone around, so what good is it? At best, extremists about rival conceptions of prime political values hive off into polarized camps and regard each other as bitter enemies in a high-stakes culture war. And this sort of enmity breeds mutual distrust. Cooperation breaks down and gains from cooperation go unrealized, even on matters about which where there's no underlying disagreement….

That "extremism" in the ideological sense won't bring anyone around seems unproven, and at least slightly belied by the history of the modern American libertarian movement in terms of winning ideological devotees—that is, "bringing people around." It has not in most cases brought around either enough or the right people for many or most specific policy changes, to be sure.

Real political change, Wilkinson points out, of necessity involves negotiation and persuasion with people who don't agree with you on core issues. It requires actual human interaction based on at least some trust and some sense of respect. The "spirit of moderation that engenders open-mindedness and mutual respects helps a lot in this regard. Maybe this is the most compelling reason to embrace moderation in pursuit of justice: it's more likely to work."

Movement libertarians, Wilkinson says, often argue from a position of such essential mistrust or moral condemnation of state action, a desire for a government of a size and function that has never been real in history, that it "takes nearly everything off the table of democratic negotiation…[leaving] no space for politics, as it is commonly understood." Thus, they tend to be bad at

the roiling adversarial mess of multiparty democratic politics. Accordingly, libertarians tend to see democratic politics as an ungodly festival of thuggery and mutual predation. Active political participation is seen as wicked, futile, or both. It's hard to think of a political philosophy less likely to inspire its adherents to throw themselves into the hard work of real politics, or to see any virtue in it….when fire-breathing dogmatists predictably fail to make any headway democratically—"working within the system"—they tend to perversely interpret this as evidence of the hopeless corruption of the system and the pointlessness of trying to get anything done using ordinary "moderate" democratic political tactics. This, in turn, confirms in their minds that extreme measures may be called for, since "moderation" seems to get nothing done. It's a cozy, self-reinforcing loop of principled ineffectuality.

Wilkinson advocates instead that libertarians should:

see polities and economies alike as dizzyingly complex emergent systems that we should try to understand and improve, but not as the sorts of things about which we can make reliably decisive moral judgments, and certainly not the sorts of things we ought to seek to replace wholesale with castles of imagination built on philosophical theory.

A libertarianism that has a place for democratic politics has a place for the virtue of pursuing liberty and justice through moderate, democratic means. A libertarianism that can see dignity and virtue in democratic participation, that doesn't need to insult potential political allies, or scare them off by constantly pining for what most people see as a crazy, scary, speculative utopia … a libertarianism like that can win friends and influence people. This sort of libertarianism, comfortable with moderation, can actually move the needle—can actually deliver incremental pro-liberty policy reform.

I don't know about you, but I want more freedom in my lifetime. I want it soon. And I'm not moving to a charter city or a man-made island. I want more freedom here, in America—which is, by the way, never going to be a majority-libertarian country. But that's okay. We can make it a considerably freer country, anyway. It's possible to nudge enough people to see the merit in moving the dial a little toward liberty on this or that specific issue, issue after issue, over and over again. That is, it's possible if enough of our fellow citizens will listen to us, if they will trust us, if they come to regard us with the respect that is engendered by respect.

Some very broad brush observations: Perhaps that "nudging" has to or at least can come from education or conversion in the "extreme" forms of libertarianism? Why would people keep shifting even little bits toward liberty if they don't believe it, and mightn't belief in it motivate the shifts? It could be that Wilkinson wants a more purely empirical libertarianism that stresses mostly or only issues that see obvious improvements for most people in their circumstances by libertarian change, unconnected with larger questions of the moral purpose of government. That may be what he means, and it may be true. But many desirable libertarian changes, such as those related to defense or criminal justice, seem to me empirically to be mostly motivated by a high-minded sense of justice, as the changes have very small to non-existent effects of the lives of most citizens.

Wilkinson's empiricism would feel more rooted if examples of "incremental pro-liberty reform" that were blissfully free of libertarian extremism, however defined, were provided. (As long as it's agreed that the "extremism as violent revolution" part he spent so much rhetorical time on is irrelevant to anything about the libertarian movement or modern America in general.) After the fog of violence is waved away, as it should be, I interpret him as saying that coming into real politics—defined apparently as the part where one is actually crafting laws and getting legislative bodies to pass them, which the Niskanen Center's efforts are about, not electoral politics—like gangbusters with "it's a pure libertarian solution we are seeking" is a bad idea.

It's possible I'm mistaken in understanding the precise arena in which he means this advice to be taken, but electoral politics may be where moderate attitudes of compromise are more appropriate, if one wants votes to matter, since no electable candidate is apt to have a full body of extreme libertarian ideas. Is this advice being given only to voters who have to vote for a specific flawed candidate, or to politicians, who have to vote for some specific flawed law or proposal that comes to their attention? If it was, it makes some sense.

But for activists and proposers and crafters of policy ideas that you hope will become law, why not be a consistent and hopefully persuasive voice for a proposal that goes all the way you want to go? If you don't, who will?

If you lose that fight and the choice then becomes, do you as libertarian individual or institution become a "supporter" of half-measures in the sense of declaring that well, you and whatever political forces you command are OK with and consider such half-measures a better option than the status quo, that's different and likely wise. But perhaps that version of moderation doesn't need to shape the initial process of what ideas libertarians active in politics propose and advocate.

Not to say there is no real world evidence for the good effects of avoiding libertarian extremism. For one example, I'm sure it has helped medical marijuana liberalization that most of the people pushing it avoided linking the issue with complete legalization at first.

Then it likely helped the rising tide of complete pot legalization that it is usually not linked with complete drug legalization, as much as that might annoy me. Arguments about costs and medicine and harmlessness and overkill that a more extreme libertarianism might condemn as besides the real point about self-ownership seem to be very convincing.

However, some older crusades of libertarian content, from abolition to abortion to civil rights, seem to largely have both succeeded and been motivated by "extreme" positions of justice sought for and achieved. And, by definition, if we are ever to have complete legalization, some people somewhere sometime have to rigorously plump for complete legalization.

It may also be that winning in the real scrum of politics is less ultimately about "respect" from those who disagree, though it may have that as a necessary-not-sufficient condition, and more about convincing the people one is interacting with either that one is right or that one has created a political inevitability. I don't see how either of those ends must be or even would necessarily often be achieved fully divorced from staking out an "extreme" libertarian position.

The Niskanen Center itself has no problem advocating what to most Americans is an extreme position on letting in Syrian refugees, and relies on moral fervor in doing so. ("Moderation" as a floating value might lead to the assumption that even the Center should move its policy positions closer to the status quo, for its sake, if moderation is thought to trump correctness or actual preference.)

Neither I nor anyone else has adequate evidence for what is the best technique for libertarian political change, or indeed that there is a singular one. It is unclear if Wilkinson believes in a more purely elite model of such change, or if he believes that politicians must be swayed by a passionate and large enough portion of the electorate valuing and demanding libertarian change. That seems to me a vital point to settle or at least consider in this question of extremism v. moderation.

Likely in some issues, merely winning over a core policy elite is enough (as might well be the case for some issues of concern for Niskanen Center, like specific military spending priority changes or tech privacy matters). But for some others, perhaps more mass popular energy is needed. (I doubt a carbon tax will seem politically possible until enough politicians are convinced that opposing one will be politically disastrous; similar for more and easier legal immigration.)

A theory or empirically presented sense of exactly how policy change happens is likely needed to convince someone who thinks, roughly and colloquially, that if politics is a game of moderation and compromise by nature, let's make them moderate and compromise in our direction by starting from the farthest edges of libertarian principles, not from a position that has been pre-compromised by that sort of moderation.

Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy at the Washington Post offers what he calls a "moderate defense of extremisim in defense of liberty" that captures some interesting aspects of what that phrase might mean for the modern libertarian movement.

Somin points out that often extreme libertarian positions are just right. In fact, if one is selling one's work as libertarian, and Wilkinson does call Niskanen Center a "libertarian think tank" (though its president, Jerry Taylor, seems sure there is essentially no support in America for libertarianism), that should be good reason to advocate those positions. The caveat would be Wilkinson's belief, as detailed above, that pushing those extreme positions just won't work in American politics.

But maybe the way to make them work is the slow game of public ideological persuasion that has been the business of libertarian organizations since the late '40s that aren't strictly about the legislative scrum. Perhaps the purest and most extreme form of those ideas will be, to many at least, the most persuasive or at least the most energizing. As I quoted libertarian economist Richard Ebeling in my book on the history of the modern American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism, people aren't inspired to go to the barricades to eliminate a milk subsidy.

Somin adds that there are examples where ideological extremism does seem practical, as in the moral energies of abolitionism and civil rights, and that extremism has a political value Wilkinson might miss:

Another advantage of advocating extreme positions is that the presence of strong, articulate advocates of them makes more moderate reformers seem mainstream and reasonable by comparison. The existence of extreme, but intellectually serious advocates of Open Borders helps the cause of more moderate immigration reformers in the long run. If Open Borders is seen as an extreme, but legitimate part of public discourse, moderate reform can no longer itself be portrayed as unthinkable extremism.

Somin also points out to Wilkinson, who frames his libertarianism as Hayekian, that Hayek himself was a loud believer in utopian radicalism in a libertarian direction as a positive force in political and social change. Hayek credited the Socialists' (mistaken) utopianism as one of their powerful and successful selling points. (There is always, with thinkers as complicated as Hayek, more to "Hayekianism" than just any one quote of Hayek's. Still, the man had studied the rise of socialism in great detail and he may well have understood something important about how dominant political ideologies can and do change.)

While the whole "extremism in defense of…" phrase's importance as a driving force of libertarian strategy or tactics seems questionable to me, Wilkinson has raised important issues in his take on it—big and eternal questions for political radicals whose answers are likely eternally contingent.

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87 responses to “The Libertarian Movement: Too Extremist, Too Moderate, or Just Right?

  1. But maybe the way to make them work is the slow game of public ideological persuasion that has been the business of libertarian organizations since the late ’40s that aren’t strictly about the legislative scrum.

    Some of us simply don’t have the patience for the long con.

    1. Or have jelly for spines.

      IF YOU COMPROMISE WITH EVIL YOU ARE AIDING EVIL

      Etch that shit into granite, tattoo it on your chest, or whatever. Just remember it.

      If you don’t participate in an evil game, you are not to blame. But if you play that game and sell true liberty down the river by further helping cement statism with your compromises, you will be held to account. This life, or the next.

      1. If you refuse to compromise, then you are an ineffective crank.

        1. Or a hero when the world comes to its senses.

          I don’t think the founding fathers compromised. At least with the British.

          To do so, would have resulted in statism. Something most of us abhor.

        2. The “Lesser of Two Evils” is still evil. If you accept evil, if you compromise with it. . . you are evil – Full Stop.

      2. Exactly!

        I’m all for compromise. But, 60 years of experience shows me that, compromise too often is a deal with the devil. The leftists – now progressives – are counting on this.

  2. in my book on the history of the modern American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism,

    Highly recommended, BTW.

  3. Like the gay rights movement, the libertarian movement should be cut in two. Half pansy moderates, half murderous extremists. So any credit can be argued over and any blame can be shifted.

    1. *Cut* in two?

      (Relevant when talking about Cato and Niskanen institutes, I guess)

      1. Cleft in twain?

    2. “the libertarian movement should be cut in two”

      This is the same as any movement. Gandhi was a pacifist but there were plenty of terrorists who were working towards the same goals. Much the same can be said of America’s abolitionist movement. Thoreau was the pacifist, John Brown was the terrorist, ( America’s most righteous). If anything, the gay rights movement is exceptional. I’m not familiar with acts of terror perpetrated by gays or their sympathizers.

      ” the libertarian movement”

      I don’t see much of a libertarian movement. Judging by the commenting here, ‘Libertarians’ are only too happy to support the GOP if it means saving a few dollars in taxes.

      1. ‘Libertarians’ are only too happy to support the GOP if it means saving a few dollars in taxes.

        Wrong! I just want the government off my back and out of my life. I can take care of myself thank you.

      2. It would be more accurate to say there is not much of a Libertarian movement, with a capital L. There certainly are movements to legalize drugs, to privatize Social Security, to end American military intervention overseas, to empower parents in choosing schools for their kids. These are all libertarian movements, but they are not linked in the public consciousness with the Libertarian Party.

  4. Moderation in justice == covicting yhe innocent just a little bit

    1. See also, asset forfeiture.

      1. Asset forfeiture is the major driver of great depressions, just as it was when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth… Communists point to the “invisible hand” but never to the “unproductive hands” known even then to cause the ruin and poverty of nations. Asset forfeiture is the marriage of Socialism and the Methodist White Terror.

    2. See also campus sexual assault accusations

  5. “We need ‘moderation in principle’ in the sense of being willing to negotiate toward public rules that do not perfectly conform with our principles, and to abide by those rules, even as we act to change them in the direction of our principles.”

    Moderation is good if the situation warrants; but if someone wants me to compromise my rights or liberty in some regard, moderation [and assumed accommodation] would not necessarily be my first response. I want the other party to present a very compelling case as to why my accommodation would genuinely serve the public good before I would agree to relinquish anything.

    Many persons have, for example, clamored for an assault weapons ban; however, when I consider the fact related to these types of weapons [putting aside the definition of an “assault weapon” for now, we all know what they’re talking about] any such ban or restriction would do nothing to alter homicide rates; even the current Justice Department admits to this; the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down a ruling admitting this as well, but argued that such issues are “highly salient” regardless and if such a ban resulted in parties “feeling safer” it was justified, any facts to the contrary notwithstanding.

    This type of specious “reasoning” does not meet my criteria for genuinely serving the public good. While I may seem intransigent, and possibly even “radical” to some self styled activists on these matters, I am not inclined to compromise.

    1. Moderation is something that people like when it doesn’t have any effect on them.

      1. I believe you just paraphrased my epistle into a few salient words; thanks.

      2. Moderation is also something people like when they don’t have a clue or a principle.

        I sometimes find myself falling into this trap. If I don’t know a topic, whatever anyone says on either side can be made to sound reasonable. And my initial impression is that they may well have valid points. And my initial reaction is to “split the difference in the middle”. Then, quite often, as I research the issue and think about it, I find, no both sides don’t have valid points. I really agree with one side. And splitting the difference down the middle would have been a terrible choice. Likewise, I’ve found some of the most unprincipled hacks you can can run across are “moderate”. They don’t really believe in much of anything but their own wishes. And they won’t bother to let any principle get in the way of that.

        1. In that case, rather than punting, just refuse to play.

          If you don’t know a topic, it probably isn’t important. At least to you. Thus, no reason to choose sides.

          Live and let live. Plenty of room for freedom in our lives.

    2. Yeah, you’ll only spend 25 years in jail for that joint instead of life so be happy.

    3. “I am not inclined to compromise.”

      Neither were Randy Weaver or David Koresh. Problem is that all those in a position to come to their assistance were inclined to compromise, turn a blind eye and ignore their plight.

      1. They didn’t vote or have a platform. Politics is different. Just as you can use a magnet to move iron filings, you can use spoiler votes to change laws. Looters will do whatever it takes to keep that hand in the till. How do you figure the income tax made it from the communist manifesto to the US Constitution? Do you imagine shooting people for making beer was a major party platform plank before 1920?

        1. Yes, but libertarians are most likely to defeat the non-libertarians who are least dangerous to libertarian principles. That’s just stupid politics. Splitting a vote means casting your vote for a loser, and attracting votes away from those more sympathetic to your policies than the person who ultimately wins.

          1. Sympathetic lies in the eyes of the beholder.

            There is a notable difference between empathy and sympathy. People need to learn the difference.

          2. That’s why the most important issue for the LP is electoral reform. The greatest problem the LP has is not controversial positions like drug legalization or Social Security privatization, it’s the fear from libertarian Republicans and Democrats that they are “wasting their vote” by voting LP, or Green. Many Republicans can’t stand Trump, but with a choice between him and either Hillary or Bernie, they will vote for the lesser of two evils rather than risk the Democrat winning.

            The winner takes all system that ensures that only 2 parties dominate means those in office never need to compromise with us on any issue. The LP needs to band together with the Greens, the American Independents, and any other movement currently viewed as ” fringe ” and get behind reforms like Instant Runoff Voting and proportional representation.

            Why does California having a bi – cameral legislature where both houses are elected from geographically gerrymandered districts? Leave the State Senate the way it is, but elect the Assembly through proportional representation. The public votes for a political party that gets seats in the legislature equivalent to their vote percentage. The LP would immediately have 4-5 seats in the Assembly. Once the public realizes that their vote actually counts for something that will quickly rise to around 20 seats as would the Greens and the others. In no time the D’s and R’s would be marginalized, and politics in America would never be the same.

  6. I wonder how Wilkinson would feel if his wife used this logic to justify her infidelity:

    “C’mon, Will, why you gotta be so extreme about our wows.”

    1. I think you meant “vows”, but it works that way too.

  7. OK, Winston, now you can post your excerpt about TH Green and Hobhouse and all of them. (although I think Wilkinson calls himself a liberal nowadays, not a libertarian)

  8. “but not as the sorts of things about which we can make reliably decisive moral judgments”

    But libertarianism is exactly about making reliably decisive moral judgments when it comes to politics. Politics is the realm of objective morality. That being the rightness of actions between two individuals. The criteria is simple, all actions are allowed except those involving the initiatory use of force, threats of force or fraud. In this there can be no moderation without abandoning it’s core principle.

  9. I’m making $86 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $95 but I see how it works now. I feel so much freedom now that I’m my own boss. This is what I do,

    ——————— http://www.richi8.com

  10. I’ve always just assumed “extremism in defense of liberty” was the exact opposite of what we’re seeing criticized in Washington DC today, “extremism” is just an absolutism that refuses any compromise. “I’m all about the First Amendment and free speech, but….” – okay, you’re not actually for free speech then. The Constitution says “Congress shall make no law” and that’s got somehow interpreted as “Congress shall make no unreasonable law”. There’s even a “compelling interest” doctrine as to when exactly Congress can make the laws the Constitution says it can’t. Once you start accepting the “reasonable, common-sense” restrictions, you’re boned. No, fuck you, cut spending.

  11. Compromise your morals or philosophy?

    1. Oh, come on, coloraDOOM, Lucy vanPelt Will Wilkinson promises he won’t pull the football out from under you this time!

  12. That’s cute, people still pay attention to Mr. “Liberaltarian”? The utter failure of that little thought experiment of his didn’t take, I guess. I have no interest in more impassioned lecturing from leftists in libertarian disguises like Will Wilkinson.

  13. Wasn’t Wilkinson one of the “liberarltarians” who got so many libertarians in the disastrous alliance with the progressives? As soon as they got power the knives came out. And now he’s telling libertarians they have to be “moderate”? Why the hell is anyone even listening to hm anymore?

    1. in his own words,, circa 2012

      “I’m not interested in identifying which among the many kinds of bleeding-heart libertarian I am because I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian….. So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.

      This conviction, that the protection of robust economic rights is essential to any regime shaped by a genuine concern for liberty?is essential to a fully liberal regime?is more than enough get you branded a sort of libertarian by many standard liberals. But one can hold to that conviction while siding with standard liberals against libertarians on many, many other important questions.

      I’m more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers.

      The argument over which rights and liberties ought to be treated as constitutional fixed points, and thus ought to be off the table of democratic negotiation, is not a debate between liberals and the people who think taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal enterprise. It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.”

      1. Yep. Like Weigel, he took off the mask when it was convenient for him. I wonder if he cries tears of quiet desperation at night that his lefty bedfellows share none of his purported beliefs in liberty…..or whether he doesn’t actually care at all. In other words, is Wilkinson dishonest, or just na?ve/stupid? The answer has to be one or the other.

        1. “he took off the mask when it was convenient for him.”

          I don’t think so at all. I just think he’s an honest intellectual who’s not really interested in practical politics or policy so much as having high-level discussions with other think-tanky people about what the word “Liberal” really means….

          1. So, na?ve/stupid then. Or useless, to look at it from another angle. Endless tap-dancing around semantics might keep one gainfully employed by a think tank, but what practical impact does it have? What’s the actual point of any of this?

            And while you may be right in regards to his intellectual honesty, I have gotten the impression from what I’ve read of his work (which, admittedly, isn’t really all that much) that much of his gyrations over labels stems from his discomfort with the kind of people he is grouped with due to like political philosophy. That is, while he’s not exactly a doctrinaire libertarian, his stated positions certainly seem much closer to it than to the philosophy actual American liberals believe and carry out. His desire to quibble over minor points of labeling is born of a social affinity for liberals and a distaste for libertarians. He dislikes much of what liberals espouse and some of what libertarians espouse but, because he feels more comfortable and sympathetic to the liberals, he works to find ways to convince himself that he’s actually a liberal.

        2. Why not both? My observations show them lockstep, arm-in-arm. Mencken described politics pretty accurately even if a little heavy on the amoral cynicism. If the LP can resist the death throes of the GOP and keep its own identity, things’ll be just fine.

        3. i dont think theyre mutually exclusive

          1. In the end, does it really matter?

      2. I used to read wilkinson at the economist all the time (his WW pieces in “Democracy in America” were things i’d always try and catch)

        I tend to find myself nodding and agreeing with him when he talks broad-brush political ‘framing’ like this.

        Yet sometimes he tries to tackle specific issues i sometimes find him hopelessly squishy and useless. He’s always trying to convince himself that other self-styled liberals are actually believers in some kind of “liberty” the same way he is, and they only differ on some technocratic aspects of how the State should best “allow” or “enforce” or “permit” liberty.

        ” too many “liberals” are really conservative apologists for the status quo political order, just as too many “libertarians” are really conservative apologists for the status quo economic order. “

        IOW he mainly seems interested in debating other moderate-liberal intellectuals about theory, and proper-labels.

        He rarely seems interested in actually convincing any wide swath of people about the illiberalism of the modern state they passively endorse.

        1. To be fair, most libertarians/Libertarians are only interested in debating other libertarians/Libertarians about theory, and aren’t that interested in actually convincing any wide swath of people about the illiberalism for the modern state they passively endorse.

          Or, to put it another way… when libertarians/Libertarians say “taxes are theft” and “fuck off slaver”, they aren’t interested in convincing anybody.

          1. i dunno, the idea of taxation being theft made a ton of sense to me right away. i forget what it was exactly but some news story i was reading 4 or 5 years ago had a not-as-misleading-as-usual description of libertarianism (and i think linked to reason). i still use that line occasionally when arguing with liberal (most of them) friends, and I guess you’re right they do just sort of laugh it off. maybe not a good way to convince most people after all, but it worked on me.

            1. I am so fucking sick of this “taxation=theft” shit.

              Taxation is not theft, Taxation is EXTORTION + ARMED ROBBERY + KIDNAPPING

              A thief (by definition) won’t hurt you. He’ll try to steal your shit when you aren’t around.

              A mafia thug will extort you by threatening violence for nonpayment, and if you don’t pay up, he makes good on that threat.

              1. Get in line comrade. Or, suffer the consequences.

              2. See? This is what I’m talking about. MC Guru’s line here isn’t meant to persuade anyone. It’s only meant to be red meat for other people that already agree. Even if the underlying ideas are persuasive (to many people they aren’t), the way they’re expressed is going to turn off just about everyone that doesn’t already agree.

                So sure, if MC Guru is preaching to the choir it might be well received. But to everyone else he’s the crazy “the end is nigh” street preacher.

      3. But, here’s the thing that bugs the hell out of me. Even though he’s now admitted he’s a liberal and not a libertarian, he’s still trying to dictate the acceptable boundaries of libertarianism.

        I mean, if a conservative commentator were to try to say “Oh, sure, I’m a libertarian, but libertarians ought to be realistic about all that drug stuff and all that non-intervention stuff, and all that government eavesdropping stuff….” he’d be (rightly) laughed out of a room of libertarianism.

        1. You expect hostile infiltrators to level with you?

  14. “Since no one in the modern aboveground libertarian movement openly advocates murderous violence… one must go to part two, focused on “moderation,” for modern relevance.”

    Our friends at Raw Story might suggest otherwise.

    I have no doubt that the Oregon Militia types will be used as media-stereotypes of “the libertarian movement” for the remainder of my lifetime.

    1. Remember, if it is a black person who the police shoot, you have to believe the witnesses who said they were shot with their hands in the air.

      If it a person who is white, and not of your politics, its times to dismiss that, and say the guy deserved it.

      1. i think that’s a bad comparison, mainly for how easy it is for anyone to point out that the Whities were armed to the tits and screaming Death to Teh Govmint etc. Racial comparisons only serve to sideline the real argument.

    2. Sure, just as to Republicans Charles Manson will always embody Haight Ashbury and clinic-shooter Robert Dear the ideal Pro-Life Christian. The cardboard stereotype once once glued on survivalists is being pasted onto abuse victims in Oregon. So what? Did you expect honesty from looters?

  15. If you’re a moderate libertarian, work with the Democrat or Republican parties. If the Libertarians aren’t seen as extreme they won’t get noticed.

    1. It’s like any other kind of bargaining. You go for what you want, and temporarily settle for what you can get, then go at them again. We want bad laws to go away, not to turn ourselves into parasitical politicians. Were it not for the Nixon anti-libertarian campaign subsidies law, by now we’d probably have total repeal of prohibitions and tax rates less than half what they were in 1971.
      The Liberal Party formed in 1930 forced the repeal of prohibition just as the Prohibition Party forced its enactment. Neither party got more’n a handful of votes.

    2. “a moderate libertarian”

      Savor that thought.

  16. “people aren’t inspired to go to the barricades to eliminate a milk subsidy”

    That’s obvious. They aren’t even willing to use the weapons they tote around to prevent themselves from imprisonment as those clowns in Oregon proved.

    1. The problem is, most people don’t know what a milk subsidy is. That’s a non-starter right there.

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  18. The huge problem in the libertarian movement is that libertarians typically evaluate policy options in relation to the endpoint: “If I had minimal/no government, would I add this law/program?”

    Here in the real world we do not have minimal government and we have a government designed to be changed slowly. Policy changes should be evaluated in this context. Some examples:

    * Should we talk tax cuts when the government is $18 trillion in debt and suffers chronic deficits?
    * Should we open our borders to a billion people for whom the U.S. minimum wage is big bucks?
    * Should we open our borders to people who have friends or relatives recently killed by U.S. foreign interventions?
    * Should we disband out large military after making enemies across the world?
    * Should we go to a gold standard while we suffer chronic budget and trade deficits?

    Even if the ultimate goal is anarchy, cutting government arbitrarily at every opportunity is a recipe for increased initiation of force. Stiffing Social Security recipients is a taking — big time.

    It is thus easy for a pragmatic incrementalist to be more principled than a Rothbardian.

    1. True enough. But when you drive a car in a particular direction long enough, somebody is going to ask you where the hell you think you’re headed. And, once you tell them, they are going to demand you turn around, or stop and let them out.

      There is also the problem that, in this analogy, the Libertarians aren’t holding the wheel, we’re in the trunk with a zippo and an old Austrian road map.

  19. A second problem with libertarians of the Rothbard School, is treating force by the State as morally worse than mere crime.

    In “The Ethics of Liberty” Rothbard said that the penalty for theft should be to pay back double. (Very Biblical, that.) Well, what if the government pays back double in kind? That is, there are some services — such as national defense — where the economies of scale are so compelling that a monopolistic government can provide the service for a fraction of the cost of a voluntary agency. If we were to be consistent, Rothbard’s rule on theft could be the moral justification for some government: if the government provides twice as much service for taxes collected as the private sector would do in a state of anarchy, then taxation is theft — with adequate compensation.

    I proposed this in LP News years ago. The result was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    (Note that my line of reasoning does not disprove anarchy by itself. It merely creates an honest intellectual framework for comparing anarchy to monarchy. If anarchy in the modern era is as unstable as it was for most nations in the past, then government could meet the above criterion and still have money left over for waste, fraud, and a welfare system. On the other hand, if you can set up and maintain an area of anarchy with less initiation of force than a government influenced by pragmatic libertarians, then by all means go for it. But count the violence of setup in your moral equation.)

    1. Rothbard was not an anarchist any more than Rand’s circle were the Collective. People were ironic and sarcastic back then too. The Mises institute is circulating an essay by Rothbard contrasting his views with the legalize-murder former-communist anarchists plaguing the LP in the 1980s. The error is like comparing JFK with the looters who today call themselves “liberal”… to the puzzlement of educated Aussies, Brits and Canucks.

    2. Anarchism is the embodiment of the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Libertarians set up their equations to minimize coercion, which also maximizes wealth and happiness. Our candidates offer to VOTE against coercion and for freedom, and the threat of that suffices to change the laws the looters write. I used to despair when I read the platforms. Now that the lessons have sunk in, and we are changing laws right and left, I’m tickled. For the same reason, the looters are terrified… Good.

  20. Land of the relatively free, home of the figuratively brave, is it?

    No thanks. I’ll stick to my extremist principles.

    1. +++++

  21. Or? maybe the problem is that most humans just aren’t all that interested in liberty (insofar as the Libertarian conception of it goes).

    And they naturally like the version Progs have been selling since the French Revolution (i.e. ‘liberty’ from want/need, ‘liberty’ from self, etc).

  22. Brian, “Thou mayst esteem a Man of many Words and many Lies much alike.” There is always a case for cowardice and retreat. In the current situation, it is made by rats swimming away from the Republican Prohibition Party and hoping to spread to the LP the disease that brought it down. Goldwater witnessed how the American Liberal Party secured the repeal of national prohibition and in 1932 toppled an entrenched christianofascist dictatorship by uncompromising manliness and forthright honesty. Unfortunately he was outvoted by parasites who admired Soviet communism and would surrender. But those voters eventually came around, thanks to the Libertarian Party of John Hospers and Petr Beckmann. M?me, pas peur!

  23. The US government would be smaller and more responsible if only libertarians had been more reasonable.

    Okey-dokey.

  24. As Robert A. Wilson put it, convictions make convicts.

    1. +1 Robert A. Wilson namedrop

  25. Why would people keep shifting even little bits toward liberty if they don’t believe it,

    It’s not that they don’t believe it, it’s just that they give it lower priority than radicals do. The key is to get them to increase their estimation of liberty (which most people already think is good) vs. everything else. Liberty is always being balanced vs. other principles or interests, some of which work against liberty at least at times, so the way to advance is to get liberty to be heavier on their scale. One might try to get their other interests to become lighter on their scale, but that’s much harder because there are so many other interests, and usually their other interests are things that radical libertarians think are good too, but don’t rate as highly.

  26. There has been no shortage of wishy-washy libertarians, from the likes of Cato, the Reason Foundation, and the Libertarian Party (if it even counts as libertarian).

  27. I used to be a Libertarian until I realized the ideological rigidity and extreme positions of the movement. I am now a conservative informed by libertarian principles.

    As the article suggests, libertarianism only succeeds by influencing more mainstream movements. As a conservative, I use libertarian principles as one place to check any position, not as the basis of positions. It is very valuable that way, but does not stand on its own – the populace is nowhere close to libertarian, and if it is in your experience, then you are living in a bubble.

    1. “the populace is nowhere close to libertarian, and if it is in your experience, then you are living in a bubble.”

      Respectfully disagree.

      Most people I know, left, right or indifferent, think their ideas are “right” and don’t want the government dictating anything different. That makes them libertarian at heart, even if they don’t know it.

      1. If all it takes to be “libertarian” is not wanting the government to stop you from what you want to do, then sure, everyone is a “libertarian”.

        That seems overly broad and useless though.

  28. Good article. Wilkinson has some points, but without something more specific, his argument really isn’t very strong.

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  29. My problem with libertarianism is it isolationist policies…. If Libertarians had been in control of the Government the whole world would be ruled by despots controlled by the USSR.

    There has only been one country in the world with the population and economy that could push back against them and that is the US.

    They would have rolled over the world, yes the Domino Effect” with no one push back against them.

    China and Russia to this day have no interesting in promoting liberty.

    I mean really if we hade not pushed back in Korea 60 million would be in chains and had we not pushed back in Central America it would be eve worse off with no country out there to ask for help.

    Even the surrogate war in Vietnam slow down Communist expansion.

    I mean the only chance the US would have had is if China and Russia had gone to war and China would have had it @$$ handed to them…. WHY: Because the only reason they have any power these days is because they started making stuff for us… Our economy became the engine that drove their economy.

  30. Why are Libertarians so bad at branding and marketing? I mean, the Republicans are terrible at it, but the Ls (big and small) aren’t much better.

    1. “[…] aren’t much better.”

      Really?

      Based on how many people identify as and vote Republican, I think Republicans are *much, much* better.

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