I started listening to Stefan Molyneux when he was still making his podcasts while driving to work. He was at around #400 and I started diligently with the first. I never caught up, I stopped listening when I realized that he is hopelessly and irredeemably ideological.
His presentations were a little too verbose but fair representations of libertarian principles as they relate to various subjects. Still, I consider his work the best example of the problems of ideological libertarianism today.
He is, of course, not alone, he is standing on the shoulders of the likes of Rothbard, but Stefan represents best what I would call populist ideological libertarianism.
The problem with ideological anything is that more often than not, it is the easy way out when we are dealing with the complexity of the world around us. Let’s grab onto something that is easily understood and derive everything from it. Explain the whole world based on it then draw a line: are you in or are you out? If you are too stupid to understand how right we are then there is no point talking to you. Offering a concession in any of the details is unacceptable because it is seen as a compromise that will inevitably lead to the decay of the idea.
Ideology versus pragmatism is the line that various schools and factions of libertarians define themselves along. How much liberty they are willing to give up to make the rest of the ideas acceptable.
The real question of liberty
Is not what it is, what it could be or what it should be but the question of how we can get to it.
The likes of Stefan say let’s withdraw from the present rotting system, isolate ourselves from it and wait. It is a religious approach picturing the libertarian utopia as some sort of heaven on earth that we may get to if we are ready to reject the false reality and get prepared for the inevitable collapse of the present system at which point we can start anew with a clean slate.
The problem with the tabula rasa
…. Is that it is a myth. There never was, there never is a clean slate. Everything builds on something; everything is loaded with the baggage of its origins. An object in motion possesses the traces of the force that set it in motion. A newborn baby has the genes of its parents with millions of years of evolution embedded in them and grows up in a culture that further limits the range of the options our minds perceive as free will. Our free will is constrained. By physics, by biology (including our psychology), culture and even politics. Culture is probably the most important as it defines what we see as normal, desirable and possible.
Hoping for a new start is dangerous delusion.
Michael Van Notten’s book, “The Law of the Somalis” was much discussed in Libertarian circles in the mid-90s. It is proof that a libertarian world can function just fine. The customary law of Somalia does indeed bear resemblance to the free market justice system envisioned by the Anarcho-capitalist libertarians, but did you look at Somalia lately? Would you take the travel advisory from the Government of Canada?
Just yesterday I listened to an interview with Amanda Lindhout about her Somali experience (460 days in captivity). Not a particularly good advertisement for the libertarian cause.
The problem is not just this particular example, but the predictable outcome of similar situations. No libertarian order will ever grow out of chaos. Power abhors vacuum and civilization is a luxury.
The only way we can ever find liberty is through leading others to the understanding that it is the highest form of civilized social coexistence. Once we accept this, we can still ask the question what is more convincing, an ideological or a pragmatic approach, but if we want to demonstrate that liberty works, we can only refer to ‘partial’ examples simply because there is no fully functioning healthy libertarian society we can point to.
Let me affirm: the non-aggression principle, the notion of self-ownership and the property rights based on them are the most amazingly simple yet complex and most fundamentally moral political ideas ever formulated. I greatly appreciate how I can deduce from them every single political position I have. There is no political ideology that can even come close to its intellectual coherence, but I’m afraid that this is not enough to convince most people. They want ‘proof’ that the idea works.
If libertarians as political parties want to offer an acceptable alternative, they need pragmatic policies, not ideology.
Unfortunately, some libertarians love their ideology a little too much.
I was not present, but I was told about a meeting where an enthusiastic new member of the party presented his ideas about taxation, which ones are the worst, which ones should we target first and which ones can we compromise on and how. His ideas were rudely and offensively dismissed by the then party leader who took his presentation and tore it up saying that all taxation is theft, no discussion is necessary.
I can understand how this can turn off someone who could be ready to open his mind to the libertarian idea.
If we try to sell the ideology in its purest form, we come across as ignorant of the realities.
Being pragmatic does not mean that we need to compromise our core principles, quite the contrary; it would be an opportunity to emphasize them as we can measure every policy against them.
Taxation is a perfect example. We have gazilions of taxes, and yes, they are all immoral but some (and some aspect of them) are more immoral than others and when it comes to the harm they cause, there are big differences. We could debate whether it is the capital gains tax or the corporate income tax that is the more harmful one to the economy, but I would hope that we could all agree that they both cause more damage than excise taxes or resource royalties.
What libertarians tend to do is attacking any new tax or any increase without having any pragmatic policy alternative behind the attack.
Suggestions such as “you shouldn’t have to raise this tax if you would provide free competition in that field or cut spending in those areas.”
What we need is political imagination, not indignant, doctrinaire regurgitation of the basic tenets of individual liberty and property rights. It turns people off.
What we need is a set of well-argued policy initiatives. What we need is a roadmap to liberty, not just a rosy picture of how wonderful it would be if we were already there.
What we need is policies that are based on our principles but also take into consideration our political realities.
The libertarian world we envision can only come into being through societal consensus, not through conflict and opposition.
What libertarians need to persuade the world is not ideological purity but creative pragmatism.