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Why do people attack Libertarians?

May 29, 2015

Bryan Caplan writes “Why do high-profile thinkers keep energetically targeting such a marginalized viewpoint?” He posits 6 reasons:

“1. Despite their rarity and absence on the front lines of politics, self-conscious libertarians still strongly shape mainstream conservative politicians’ economic policies.

2. Self-conscious libertarians, though rare, have still managed to sharply shift public opinion in a libertarian direction.

3. Self-conscious libertarians, though politically impotent, are a symbol of what’s wrong with American politics.

And then there are the stories the critics won’t embrace, but perhaps they’re true nonetheless…

4. Libertarians, unlike mainstream conservatives, openly defend many unpopular views. Intellectuals who want to loudly champion popular views have to engage libertarians because there’s hardly anyone else to argue with.

5. Libertarian arguments, though mistaken, are consistently clever enough to get under the critics’ skin. The purpose of the criticism is not shielding the world from bad ideas but giving the critics some intellectual catharsis.

6. Libertarian arguments are good enough to weigh on the critics’ intellectual consciences. They attack libertarians to convince themselves that we’re wrong. And they keep attacking us because they keep failing to fully convince themselves.”

1+2 are somewhat likely. Libertarians are at the forefront of many policy arguments. We frequently advocate radical policies, and I like to think our solutions to problems are often quite effective. I don’t think this is a big reason liberals attack us, because I think the libertarian/liberal social agreements have produced more actual policy/public opinion changes than the libertarian/conservative economic ones have.

3: Eh, maybe.

4: I think this is a big deal. If you want to find someone who is in favor of child labor, abolishing the minimum wage, legalizing cocaine, or increasing immigration, you need a libertarian. Are we the only ones with the courage to stand up to bad, but popular ideas, or are we just crazy? You decide.

5, 6: Seems like libertarian ego boosting to me. In many cases, I think libertarian arguments are downright awful. It’s all deontology, deductively reasoning from unrealistic and unappealing assuptions, and hagiographic appeals to terrible fiction authors. I think its the outcomes from our policies which encourage people to do more of them.

Tim Worstall: Conservatives want to control your life so you’ll do X. Liberals want to control your life so you’ll do Y. They both hate the guy saying “Don’t control people at all”.

This might be the attitude of actual politicians, but I don’t see it as a motive of hate-monging journalists. If you’re going to write an article, you have a specific topic in mind, and you need to find a scapegoat for the problem and barriers that are preventing right-thinking people from fixing said problem. Libertarians play both roles pretty well, but you’re probably not going to see yourself as striving, in general, to control people’s lives.

Chris Dillow argues that libertarians are associated with nut-jobs. I think this is true. We’re more likely to believe and get upset about reports of government wrongdoing. Conspiracy theorists are going to be libertarian because if you believe the government is engaged in horrible mind control experiments or that they are in league with aliens to destroy humanity, etc, you’re not going to be in favor of that. He also brings up UKIPers which bugs me, because I see UKIP as paleo-con/fascist and pretty much the opposite of libertarians. The libertarianest party in the UK is the Liberal Democrats. Dillow also notes libertarians’ defense of unpopular policies

Even as a libertarian, I find many libertarians very hateable people. We tend to flaunt social conventions in ways that rub people the wrong way. Refusing to vote, refusing to recycle, protesting lifestyle control laws that, while are probably bad on the whole, are geared toward smoothing interaction and encouraging conformity, which makes life easier.

My Own Explanations
Intimate vs. Extended Order
There are different norms and values required to support intimate orders vs. extended orders. Libertarians tend to be extended order people, and nearly everyone else are intimate order people. Because we advocate very different norms and interaction styles than others, that makes us seem alien and unfeeling. It’s not that love and compassion aren’t important to us, we just know that those feeling can’t support large societies. Other political groups are far more likely to believe that they can. I think Hayek’s idea of the two orders is far more important than the attention it receives. I doubt that one non-libertarian pundit in a hundred could accurately describe it.

Using Kling’s Three Languages of Politics, liberals support the oppressed against the powerful. I’ve argued that libertarians are actually pretty good in this regard, but a lot of what we say is ripe for misunderstandings, as we use very different language and argumentation styles (far more logical as opposed to emotive). We certainly don’t couch are arguments in terms of helping the poor and oppressed, and this can be interpreted as not caring. And to some degree, many individual libertarians may not care so much about poverty.

Haidt’s Values
Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.
Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules. (Alternate name: Proportionality)
Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.
Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation. (Alternate name: Ingroup)
Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority. (Alternate name: Respect.)
Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. (Alternate name: Purity.)

Libertarians are big on Liberty (obviously) and to a lesser degree care/harm and fairness/cheating. I think we actually agree with liberals more on the foundations of vales than we do with conservatives. I do think there’s a meme of libertarians being actively opposed to care/harm as a moral axis. I personally care a lot about that axis, but many libertarians don’t so much. It’s a fair cop, some of the time.

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