Libertarian Party

Advocate Libertarian Philosophy with This One Trick! (It's the Socratic Method)

Making the case for less government to people who want alternatives to authority.


Gary Johnson
Gage Skidmore via / CC BY-SA

Even before last weekend's big Libertarian Party National Convention in Orlando, Reason has been making note that the horrible general election reality of Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump has prompted people and the media to take a closer look at the most prominent third party in the United States.

This naturally puts libertarians (both within and independent of the party) in the position of explaining the libertarian mindset to people who don't really think too much about it or are exposed only to stories dismissing it as craziness. And obviously there are people who are very politically invested in making sure libertarians are seen as total nutters and unserious, holding an untenable philosophy that only crazy or selfish people would believe in.

But sometimes it doesn't help when some libertarians attempt to argue from an assumption that all people are operating from the same mindset or values of liberty. The coverage of the libertarian debate didn't help not because the questions were odd (though they kind of were), but because it was primarily for the purpose of appealing to people who are already libertarians. It really wasn't that much different from the Republican or Democratic debates. Well, there was no slam poetry from the establishment folks, but I could imagine an increasingly desperate Jeb Bush resorting to it if he thought it would help his numbers.

Ken "Popehat" White has a post up this evening worth highlighting, as it suggests a good way to approach arguing for libertarian philosophy to maybe at least get others thinking about why libertarians believe what we do beyond a superficial idea that we're all beholden to major corporations and marijuana:

I'd like to propose presenting libertarianism as a series of questions rather than a series of answers or policy positions. Even if I don't agree with people's answers to these questions, getting them to ask the questions and confront the issues reflected in the questions would promote the values that I care about.

White suggests 10 questions that are mostly designed to get people to think about the impacts of the expansion of government authority. I'll point out the one I've been using ever since George W. Bush was president, and we saw the expansion of the deference given to the president in war-making and surveillance:

What would your worst enemy do with this power?

Aye, there's the rub. Think of the politician you hate and mistrust most. Do you want that politician administering enforcement of the law you propose, particularly in a time when other branches of government are aligned or weak?

That a lot of people only seem to be thinking about this now that Trump is a nominee is pretty telling. As a libertarian, I can point to another presidential candidate (or actual president) over the past 15 years that has either suggested doing everything Trump has suggested (in a manner more "acceptable" to the establishment) or has actually already done it.

Read White's questions here.

I would like to add two questions that I think about whenever I'm making the case for libertarian limited government to my friends:

Do you really want to punish, fine, arrest, and jail people over this issue?

I often end up bringing up this question when debating more liberal friends over whether wedding-related businesses should be required by law to serve gay couples. It's interesting having to bring up this question in this context because I used to bring it up decades ago when arguing with conservatives about sodomy laws. Do you really want to put gay men in jail over sex?

And really, the answer is frequently no, they don't. They want the behavior they don't like to stop. While I have seen some people expressing glee at the idea of a religious baker or florist being fined, in reality, most supporters of these public accommodation rules don't actively want to punish anybody. They just want people to shut up and bake the cake or arrange the flowers.

And back years ago, yes there were some people who actually did want to put gay men in jail. But really, what many conservatives wanted was to use the government to send a cultural message of what sort of sexual activity was appropriate because they believed that homosexuality was learned behavior that was harmful to the self. They didn't want to imprison gay people, but they wanted to make sure their kid didn't turn out gay.

But these people often don't stop and think about the fact that the law can't actually accomplish what they want to accomplish if it's not enforced. If they're not willing to punish bakers or florists with fines or potentially put them out of business, they can't actually force them to comply with this demand. They have to be willing to turn to the police and courts to cause harm to others in order to get their way. If they find this objectionable, that leads to my second question. (If they don't find this objectionable, note Popehat's question above about one's political enemies):

Is there a way to resolve this conflict without getting the government involved?

If people do pull back at the idea of sending police and prosecutors after their adversaries, does that mean they can't get what they want? Again, going back to the bakers and florists, this is why I'm frequently having to point out that there are many, many alternatives available, and this very specific, fairly rare form of discrimination does not resemble the type of organized, widespread public accommodations discrimination that faced racial minorities. Why is there the assumption that the response needs to be the same?

This usually leads to a "What if . . .?" argument. With bakers and florists it tends toward a scenario where allowing people to discriminate against gay people for any reason will lead to a situation where some isolated gay person in a rural community is denied service from everybody. Be sure to challenge these premises. In this case, many states still don't cover sexual orientation in their public accommodation laws. If there was any interest in refusing to serve general goods to gay people, it would have already been happening.

I would conclude by suggesting that always treat people as though they actually legitimately believe the things they say they believe, even if you think college professors or preachers or parents or television commercials or whomever unduly influenced them. There's a famous saying that you can't reason somebody out of a position they didn't reason themselves into. There's a built in assumption in that saying that you're the reasonable one and they're not, which makes it easy for anybody to use that saying as a weapon. You have to at least consider that your debate partner here believes that the position that he or she is taking is reasonable. People don't just randomly believe things. You also can't reason somebody out of a position if you dismiss the idea that they legitimately believe said position.

Of course, if you question some people too hard, they might accuse you of being a sea lion.