Mitch Thompson

October 23, 2019

We need better, not more, libertarians

The type of libertarians, or libertarian fellow travelers such as paleo-leaning conservatives, who read content on this site are aware of, and enthusiastically agree with, the general position that the Libertarian Party is basically an embarrassment writ large. And thus, we so often think of ourselves as advocates of lower-case libertarians rather than upper case, political Libertarians. For those around us who question our political leanings, we may first state our allegiance to libertarianism but quickly and sternly clarify that this does not indicate our party affiliation.

It is not simply that the LP is deeply involved in political machinations (therefore wasting time and resources), nor is it that the party’s leadership is brutally obnoxious in its gleeful embrace of every socio-cultural trend, nor is it even that they are unprincipled or impure. There seems to be something else at a grander and more sweeping level that bothers us about many of these folks.

But this distinction between the Libertarian Party as a political organization and the libertarianism as a political theory is divide that is perhaps related to another debate regarding the broadness of libertarianism; that is, does political theory speak to cultural and social issues or does political theory strictly refer to the problems relating to the use of coercive action in interpersonal relations? The broad interpretation has taken up the label of “thick libertarianism” and the latter as “thin libertarianism.”

It is obvious to most of the readers of this site, as well as those who prefer Mises Institute and Tom Woods over Reason Magazine and Nick Sarwark, that libertarianism as a “thick” philosophy has done damage to the cause. And thus we fiercely defend the thinness of libertarianism by emphatically stating that “libertarianism does not, per libertarianism, demand us to be libertines!” We have the freedom, we argue, to embrace traditional values, prefer certain norms, and engage in the religion of our fathers.

It is, however, a mistake to take the thinness of libertarianism and lean on it as the basis of social analysis. This is the mistake that C.Jay first pinpointed in this well-received article; specifically, that because of the political nature of modern society, the great temptation is to summarize solutions and analysis only in terms of the political. Thus, those who consider libertarianism as a holistic way of interpreting the world around them bastardize libertarianism. But there is an opposite mistake that can tempt the thin libertarians: to completely ignore social analysis, cultural criticism, and, especially, great sweeping narratives of the history of man.

Thus we have the general criticism of the non-libertarian conservatives who chastise libertarians for being completely ambivalent to sweeping social changes, for putting so much of their focus and energy entirely on the promises of the free market and yet who ignore and express disinterest in civilization independent of the particular market mechanisms. It is easy for us thin libertarians to mock the cultural progressivism of the thick libertarians, but we must remember as well that thin libertarianism, if we are serious about it being thin, needs to be combined with something outside libertarianism. The answer therefore is not to broaden libertarianism’s scope, but rather to look beyond libertarianism for those things that are relevant to our social problems.

So often, non-libertarian conservatives criticize libertarianism because it “is not enough.” Libertarianism, they say, fails because it does not take into account other social concerns such as family units, social organizations, social institutions, common values. Their mistake is in expecting more of libertarianism than they ought. Libertarianism doesn’t need to speak to these things so long as libertarians recognize that being rightly emphatic that libertarianism is thin constitutes a burden to look beyond libertarianism and into other forms of analysis, criticism, and interpretation. Libertarianism cannot be blamed for failing to address concerns outside its own boundaries. But – and here is such a needed point for our time!– most libertarians ought to be blamed for failing to address concerns outside libertarianism!

To bring this train of thought back around to the earlier mention of the Libertarian Party and those libertarians who embrace the Progressivist social spirit of our age, my proposal is this: what bugs us about them is not merely their thick libertarianism nor their unprincipled proclivities. Rather, what bugs us, deep down, is that we actually do have extra-libertarian inclinations that have been suppressed, and therefore unrecognized, by our fascination with political society.

Libertarianism as a political reference point is coming undone and there are problems festering within its culture that stem not from libertarianism but are mirroring culture as a whole. So many of us recognize and opine that “the problem is not libertarianism, but the libertarians.” And this is exactly right; we must be honest in accepting that outside of minority (usually castigated) circles of libertarians, the libertarians are generally in poor social shape. They are good at sharing the same articles in the same social media circles and bouncing the same memes to the same echo chambers and making fun of the same statists every day. Yes, they are free to do this. But what of the future of Western Man?

Far from being a plea to internet libertarians to “get your hands dirty,” grab a picket sign, go vote, donate to a political cause, hand out flyers, start a march, or “get involved” with a protest… the solution here is to stop aiming toward libertarianism as a profession, as an identity. Perhaps it would be better for liberty, precisely because it would be better for society, for people to just focus on self (and family) improvement. Perhaps, and don’t panic at this, perhaps it would be better for liberty if we took a year off from libertarianism and started living better lives.

Libertarianism itself has been perfected; I mean, there will always be areas of further development and improvement and we shouldn’t let the doctrine sit in a trash heap, ignored. But as far as political theories go, libertarianism is the most advanced and precise body of propositions produced in the history of political thought. It’s “good enough.” What we need is better libertarians. More generally, what we need is better people. Society is made up of— what do Misesians always say?— individuals! Society reflects the quality of the individuals, not the quality of the most truthful doctrine, which is most often mostly ignored.

About the author

Mitchell Thompson is in charge of circulation and content management at Bastion Magazine. He lives and works in Northern CA with his wife and children.

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