My Thoughts On Libertarianism

As with most philosophical/economically-oriented blogs, the question of political preferences quickly comes up. I’ll start right out of the gate saying that I don’t like labels, I try and listen to what I think is true. But I also recognize that that’s just a lie I tell myself to make myself feel neutral and intellectual, everyone has strongly held priors, including myself.

So, to boil it down quickly, there are two political ideologies amongst (in my opinion) respectable circles. Libertarianism (liberalism) and Progressivism (social-democratism, typically called liberalism in America but that’ll just be confusing). Social-Conservatism does exist, but I find that it is rare amongst intellectuals, and I don’t really want to talk about progressivism today. So, to narrow the topic a bit, today I want to talk about libertarianism, and more specifically, my one significant critique of it.

When I was young, I came out as an athiest. Being raised in a fairly religious family, it should have been obvious to me at the time that this wouldn’t go well, and it didn’t. Unfortuntaely, when you are a young kid in that environment, you look for some way of garnering sympathy. Which, unfortunately, often radicalizes you even more. I started to read central figures of the “new athiest” movement, like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. I started hanging out on athiest online forums, discussing these ideas, converting my friends, and just generally immersing myself in the culture.

Fast forward into my late teens, and I started to notice a weird pattern. Someone would come out as an athiest, saying reasonable things like “it’s much more likely that religious texts are simply false accounts” or “there isn’t really any inherent reason to believe in an all powerful deity”, but then after a while they would start to say things which sounded reasonable to someone in that culture, but to anyone else it would sound religious.

How could an athiest say something that sounds religious? Well, a common sentence would be something along the lines of “those religious nutjobs are preaching unscientific facts”. To an athiest in the athiest culture, this sounds reasonable. But if you replace ‘religious nutjobs’ with ‘heathens’, ‘heretics’, ‘infidels’ or any of the other similar words religions have invented for people with whom they disagree. And replace ‘unscientific facts’ with ‘false gospel’, ‘heresy’, or any of the other similar words religions have invented for ideas with which they disagree. Then you pretty much get a religious caracateur saying the same thing. Maybe the words are different, but the meaning and intentions are the same.

An athiest could say, “ah, but unlike those religious nutjobs, we have the truth on our side, which is why when we say these things, they’re justified”. Though I would point out that this is what every single religion has ever believed.

In a certain sense, athiests would become so athiest, that they would justify seemingly thiest dispositions using their athiesm. That might seem contradictory, but by “thiest disposition” I’m not referring to a belief in god, instead I’m referring to one of the many ways in which people express religiousity: lack of self-awareness, rejection of academic modesty, zealous tribalism, etc. For example, many of these people can’t even name one of Thomas Aquinas’ five justifications for the existence of god, yet they have strong opinions on theological philosophy. Many of these people worship “science” as a new god, claiming global warming as the new end of times, when he or she doesn’t know the first thing about statistical modeling or social discount rates.

That doesn’t mean I disagree with athiests on a philosophical level, but I suspect there is something hardwired in the human brain which makes people religious in some sense. People are just going to act religiously, even if you change all the words and objects for which they are religious.

I think the same can be said of libertarianism. Libertarians have significant difficulty in convincing other people to be libertarian, because people’s minds are fundamentally non-libertarian. Even libertarians themselves have a long history of non-libertarianism, often sparking internal conflict. Whether it’s Murray Rothbard defecting to the paleo-conservatives, or Matt Zwonlinsky justifying welfare. These are obviously not the most libertarian things to do (whether or not you think they’re justified), but the people doing these things are completely convinced they are defending them in a constitently libertarian manner.

This fits very well with the patterns I saw in the athiest movement. Libertarians would become so libertarian, that they would justify seemingly pro-state positions using their libertarianism. And similar to the athiests, I might not have any disagreements with libertarians on a philosophical level. But after watching the movement for a while, I think that people just have a brain hardwired for being pro-state.

I don’t really have any answers for libertarians. You can’t really change the hardware in people’s brains, nor is it really clear that you should. Social creatures develop dominance hierarchies for a reason, and people’s biases to authority likely arise from these hierarchies. But I will point out that this changes the fundamental design problem libertarians face. Most libertarians ask some version of the question: how do we reduce the authority of the state? If the answer is “you can’t”, a more proper question might be: how do we give people the trappings of a state, allowing them to play at these dominance hierarchies, while simultaneously making the state’s authority toothless?