The Volokh Conspiracy

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Libertarianism Updated

5 ways libertarianism needs to up its game.


As I describe in my new memoir, A Life for Liberty: The Making of an American Originalist, I have identified as a libertarian since I was a junior in college. I still do. But for at least the past 10-15 years, I have felt that libertarianism as a political theory needed to be updated. In that same time period, I have noticed a growing schism among libertarians along lines that is difficult to define precisely. In recent years, many of those on one side of that schism, some of whom I have known since they were students, have started to avoid that label. I think that is premature. I believe libertarianism, with its core emphasis on individual freedom, remains a viable political philosophy that is superior to what is on offer from either progressives or conservatives, most of which is not systematic. As "national conservatives" have perceived, it is also at the core of those whose conservatism is based on liberty.

On Law & Liberty, I have a short essay entitled, Libertarianism Updated, discussing five possible areas where libertarianism could use some further development. I plan to develop these ideas into a future book. But because I write books, first and foremost, to discover what I think about ideas, these thoughts are still highly tentative–and I list them in descending level of confidence. That is, I feel more confident about the earlier points than the later.

This is from the beginning:

Libertarianism in the 1970s was an internally contested intellectual project, not a rigidly fixed set of policy positions. But unlike originalism, which has benefited from 20 years of internal intellectual debate among originalists, libertarianism has largely been frozen in amber since the 1970s.

I see five distinct ways that libertarian theory needs to up its game.

First, the need for natural law ethics in addition to natural rights; second, the need to distinguish between libertarian ideal theory and second-best libertarianism in a world of governments and competing nations; third, the need for a libertarian theory of citizenship and civil rights; fourth, the need to separate the public-private binary from the government-nongovernment binary; and fifth, the need for a more refined theory of corporate power and corporate rights.

Let me offer a few words about each.

You can read the rest here.