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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Libertarianism in a nutshell

Karen Selick's excellent five-minute explanation of libertarianism that she delivered at the Manning Networking Conference and Exhibition last month as part of the panel of ideological dimensions of conservatism (which I wrote about here) has been republished in the National Post.

One of the most important parts of Selick's talk is here:

I want to stress that libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy. Philosophy has five main branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and politics. Politics is the branch that deals with the relationship between the individual and the state. Libertarianism is a political philosophy only. It's not a package deal. It says nothing whatsoever about any of the other branches of philosophy. So, for instance, there are some libertarians who are atheists, and others who are religious. The two groups have radically different views on metaphysics and epistemology, but they agree on politics. They agree on what the state should or shouldn't do to its citizens and for its citizens.

I feel compelled to address the erroneous notion that conservatives often have that libertarians are also libertines. A moment ago, I said that as a libertarian, I would legalize drugs, prostitution and so on. But in my own personal life, I neither engage in nor advocate that others engage in such activities. In fact, I personally behave pretty much like a social conservative. But I don't do it because that's what the state decrees. I do it because of the branch of philosophy called ethics. According to my ethics, self-destructive activities are evil, and people shouldn't engage in them. But that's entirely different from saying, "The state should outlaw them."

So if explanations of political philosophies are your thing, read the rest here..

Posted by Janet Neilson on April 7, 2009 | Permalink


Excellent, clear and important -- well done, Karen.

Thanks for the post, Janet.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-07 1:37:22 PM

Karen Selick's excellent five-minute explanation of libertarianism.............
Posted by Janet Neilson on April 7, 2009

Five minutes? I could describe libertarianism with one word.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-04-07 2:04:43 PM

Wow, Stig, that's really impressive. I guess it's weird that no one invited you to speak at a conference to explain it, then, isn't it?

Posted by: Janet | 2009-04-07 2:15:04 PM

Wow, Stig, that's really impressive. I guess it's weird that no one invited you to speak at a conference to explain it, then, isn't it?
Posted by: Janet | 2009-04-07 2:15:04 PM

Isn't it though. Unlike most you freeloaders at the WS I have a business to run.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-04-07 2:26:20 PM

Stig: Janet, Karen and I will all work hard to make sure have a right to run your business the way you see fit, and to earn as big a profit as your acumen will allow.

Can we call a truce now?

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-07 2:42:31 PM

That is a great summary, and sums it up for me too. Yeah I smoke cannabis but other than that I behave pretty socially conservative as well. I don't think the state has any place telling people how to live as long as they aren't hurting other people. I think most people know what is best for themselves better than the state does.

Posted by: DrGreenthumb | 2009-04-07 3:05:45 PM

Very good post Janet! I never thought of it that way.

Posted by: TM | 2009-04-07 4:04:45 PM

Selick's attempt to divorce politics from ethics and epistemology is incoherent.
How can you uphold such principles as rights and the non-initiation of force if you are a sceptic or an ethical relativist?

Posted by: Craig | 2009-04-07 4:20:00 PM

Selick, like most so-called libertarians, show extreme difficulty in dealing with freedom of association.

Repeal Our Phony Human Rights Laws

"So, for example, a convenience store owner could not deny entry to his store on the basis of a customer’s race or ethnic origins, even if he had been held up at gunpoint a dozen times by members of a particular racial or ethnic gang. Gang members, however, are free to boycott a convenience store if they happen to dislike the proprietor’s race, colour, accent, etc. The human rights codes do not force people to buy a fair share of their pop and cigarettes from stores owned by Asians, blacks, Jews,(Selick is Jewish) WASPS, francophones, gays, etc."

So far, so good, but then she lapses into nuttiness.

I’ll take my chances in the unregulated marketplace any day. If someone wants to insult me, or doesn’t want to deal with me, because of my ethnic origins, my sex, or anything else, my attitude is: let him. My ego is not so fragile that uncouth behaviour on the part of an obvious bigot will shatter my self-esteem. His incivility doesn’t make me think less of myself—it only makes me think less of him. And frankly, I don’t mind knowing who these jackasses are, because I’d like to boycott them even more than they want to exclude me.

She claims to support the right to exclude, then goes on a tirade of defamation; bigot; jackass; let's boycott those displaying the principles of freedom that I support. Instead of government coercion, let's bring social coercion. Why? The store owner is robbed, repeatedly, by a black gang and Selick supports his right to deny blacks entrance to his store. Yet if he denies blacks entrance to his store he's a bigoted jackass and should be forced, not by the government, but by the community to allow blacks into his store.

She's a fruit loop.

Posted by: DJ | 2009-04-07 4:53:34 PM

Politics is more than just the connection between the individual and the state. Most individuals also have to think about the welfare of other individuals who are either in some way dependent on them or who they value as people even moreso than they do themselves. And of course these include family, friends and others who's lives are somehow connected to their own.

This is why Llibertarians are selfish. Most rational people dismiss this selfish Llibertarian thinking because they are concerned about the effects of prostitution, smoking or other abhorent, abnormal or profane behaviour over their children or over those who are capable of hurting their children as an example.

This is why Llibertarianism is stupid in well under 5 minutes.


Posted by: epsilon | 2009-04-07 5:14:11 PM

DJ, it seems like a tirade, but I think she was making a different point than what you read. She is calling people who would be racist or sexist to her Jackasses. When the state steps in, the game changes. Understanding this point, and why it is so, is a big deal.

Posted by: TM | 2009-04-07 5:14:58 PM

DJ, Selick's point is that if someone bigotry is unfounded, we have market mechanisms with which to punish them.

You can't read beyond that to your specific example of the store owner.

She is not a fruit loop.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-07 5:15:07 PM

I meant drug use when I used the term "smoking" above.

Posted by: epsilon | 2009-04-07 5:15:45 PM

Epsilon, you make broad stroke with the brush you use. I consider myself a Libertarian type but am very concerned, maybe as much as you, about the effects of drugs and protitution. In fact, it is that very concern that has helped push me toward Libertarianism. And there are many more like me out there.

Posted by: TM | 2009-04-07 6:09:50 PM


Your misunderstanding of libertarians is rooted in your assumption that libertarians have some different goal than other groups. Libertarians share the same goals as any other philosophical group - we just disagree on the best way to get there.

Posted by: Janet | 2009-04-07 6:17:36 PM

Janet and TM, thanks for pointing out that libertarians are hypocrites.

Posted by: epsilon | 2009-04-07 7:25:13 PM

How is unfounded defined? According to the political philosophy of libertarianism, voluntary interaction requires no reason. It's absolutely nutty that a libertarian embraces the fundamental freedom of association and then screams bloody murder when you acted freely.

Posted by: DJ | 2009-04-07 8:32:56 PM

You have the legal freedom to do some things that you morally ought not to do, DJ.

You don't need to provide a reason for your decisions regarding with whom you associate. But if you base those decisions on what others regard as bigotry, others are free to judge.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-07 9:07:55 PM

Why is the pursuit of freedom immoral? If it's immoral to pursue freedom then why are you or she advocating acting immoral? Does that not contravene her ethics, self-destructive activities are evil.

You desire freedom and then condemn it as bigoted. Well surprise, that's what freedom is. Moreover, she just not judging, she's advocating boycott. In other words "combining against (a landlord, tradesman, employer, or other person), to withhold social or business relations from him, and to deter others from holding such relations;" i.e. deny his freedom.

What exactly is the point? It certainly doesn't appear to be the pursuit of freedom.

Posted by: DJ | 2009-04-07 11:48:57 PM

The constraints on non-violent behavior in a free society come only from social approbation, DJ.

That's the only point I'm trying to make. I'm either making my point poorly, or you simply disagree that this type of social sanction (or approval) is consistent with freedom.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-08 12:34:05 AM

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