Friday, July 08, 2022

The Meaning of "Libertarian": A Question

Consider two hypothetical Christians. Christian A considers himself a libertarian, does not believe in the initiation of coercion, believes in property rights. He believes, however, that God, having created everything, is the rightful owner of everything. God has authorized rulers to collect taxes, censor writings, ban drugs and prostitution, enforce slavery. None of that, he will explain, is an initiation of coercion, just the enforcement of God's legitimate property rights.

Christian B does not consider himself a libertarian; if God told him to kill or enslave people he would willingly obey. He believes, however, that God's purposes will best be achieved in a libertarian society. The opportunity to sin with a prostitute will let the virtuous strengthen their virtue by resisting temptation, the truly sinful proceed on their way to Hell; prostitution should be legal. He wants to free slaves in order to let them work out their own salvation or damnation.

Christian A believes in libertarian arguments but not in libertarian conclusions, Christian B the opposite. Which is more libertarian?

Christian A is imaginary but there are libertarian philosophers, such as the Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the left or Hans Hoppe on the right, who offer what they believe to be libertarian arguments for conclusions, such as income redistribution or immigration restrictions, that most libertarians consider inconsistent with libertarianism. 

If justice really requires transfers from rich to poor or states have the right and obligation to restrict immigration in order to protect the rights of their citizens, the people who believe those things are libertarians, indeed better libertarians than we are. But if they are wrong, as I believe they are, do those conclusions make them less libertarian? What does “libertarian,” predicated of a person or a conclusion, mean?

I, arguably, am Christian B. A very long time ago I found it necessary to join the Free Libertarian Party of New York in order to attend a libertarian event. Doing so required me to “certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.” I footnoted my signature with something to the effect that the statement was a simplified version of my actual position. The footnote was necessary because, although I do not currently advocate any initiation of force, I can imagine circumstances in which I would. Some are described in Chapters 41 and 42 of The Machinery of Freedom.

Many libertarians believe that they have derived  their libertarian conclusions from the non-aggression postulate. That is not where I got mine. Does that mean I am not really a libertarian or that I, like Christian B, am a libertarian with different arguments but libertarian conclusions?

A possible answer is that what matters is where the arguments lead. If, as some have argued, my position could be used as easily to argue for statist conclusions, that is a reason to consider me, if not a statist, at least a dangerous influence on libertarianism. If the arguments that Hoppe offers for immigration restrictions could be applied as well to almost any restriction of individual liberty favored by Hoppe and the current right, that is a reason to consider him a dangerous influence on libertarianism. 

As I do.