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Thursday, July 29, 2010

"I had no idea libertarianism was so exciting..."

Western Standard blogger Mike Brock just appeared on CBC's Power and Politics alongside Stephen Taylor, prominent Canadian blogging pundit. The two of them got into a bit of a debate over the mandatoriness of the long-form census, and over whether or not this move by the Stephen Harper-led Tories would bring more libertarians into the conservative movement.

Brock and Taylor seemed to be at odds with one another. While both were supportive of this most recent move by the Tories, Brock was insistent that this move is not enough to bring in libertarians. That libertarians cared about other issues that the Conservative government has failed them on. He cited the war on drugs, a dramatic increase in the size of government, and the G20 as thorns in the side of libertarians who might, otherwise, take a second look at the Conservative Party.

Taylor hit back, arguing that Brock's view was too low to the ground, that he needs to go up 30,000 feet to see the bigger picture, and to realize that politics is about the art of the possible.

While Brock is sure to post a few follow-up posts after his debate, one thing might surprise those watching the show -- Brock and Taylor took different positions, and debated the issue, but both Brock and Taylor count themselves as libertarians.

Rosemary Barton, host of CBC's Power & Politics, basically said "huh?" when Taylor said he was a libertarian. She double-checked. And, sure enough, Taylor did admit, somewhat sheepishly, that he is a libertarian (this isn't news to readers of this blog, or to readers of Taylor's blog either. Taylor's been a libertarian for a long time).

No one would be surprised to hear two conservatives differ about policy or strategy. Of course they would differ -- conservatism is a broad movement, comprising fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, social liberals, foreign policy hawks and doves, and so on.

But the same is true of libertarians.

Libertarianism is both a political philosophy, as well as a political morality. On the former, it is a view about the proper function of government, and the proper size of government. It is possible to be a consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological, social conservative, natural rights, and so on, libertarian. "Libertarian" describes what your view is on the role of government, but is silent on why you endorse that role, and no other. For that, you need to look at political morality.

As a political morality, libertarianism refers only to the natural rights foundations of libertarian political philosophy. This might be part of the confusion, since the same label refers to two distinct things -- foundations and outcomes.

Recently, I posted about reason magazine's debate entitled "Where do libertarians belong?" It was a debate between Brink Lindsay, Matt Kibbe, and Jonah Goldberg. This CBC panel on the census was a snapshot of the same debate within the libertarian movement about where libertarians belong. Taylor thinks being a part of the conservative movement is the best way to reach more individual liberty and individual responsibility, while Mike Brock is no longer so sure.

Barton permitted Brock and Taylor to tussle back-and-forth for some time. When all was said and done, she laughed and said, "I had no idea libertarianism was so exciting! Thank you to the both of you for making it so."

It is exciting.

Learn more, pick up these major works of libertarianism (two authors are Canadian, two are American):


Posted by P.M. Jaworski on July 29, 2010 in Census, Libertarianism | Permalink


Peter, you're far too generous to Taylor. I've got no axe to grind with him, but the show tonight demonstrated the problems associated with any floating political concept that is not tied to a *particular* metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical base.

To Mike: kudos for not allowing Taylor's BS drop from 30k feet to cloud the issue. Taylor has as much right to call himself a libertarian as does Mike (or Jack Layton, for that matter: see Part 2 of "The Principle of Pot"), but the weasely part of his argument was his insistence that libertarians are a *part* of conservativism. If anything, the *reverse* is true: conservatives are a part of libertarianism. Either way, the debate *should* give libertarians reason to re-examine the "big tent" notion of bringing toghether people who happen to share a handful of policy preferences as a result of having diametrically opposed ethical codes, epistemologies, or views on metaphysics.

Again: good work Mike.

Posted by: Paul McKeever | 2010-07-29 4:39:31 PM

I am going to be even more strict that Paul.

Taylor is no libertarian no matter what he says. Libertarianism is marked by the desire to have as small a gov't as possible (or no gov't at all if I may side with the likes of Rothbard) and what gov't there is must DEFEND individual rights, not impose and interfere with them. Agreeing that the census should not be voluntary is a libertarian position, to be sure, but as I am sure Mike Brock will agree, that small agreement will not attract those libertarians that are actually, you know, consistent in their principals.

Sorry but the census is literally nothing when it comes from the same gov't that abused individual and democratic rights at the G20, ignores those rights when it is convenient to do so and outspends Paul Martin beholden to Jack Layton by 8% per year, every year.

Getting a long form census as voluntary is not worth wandering into an alliance with those who also want endless entanglements in foreign wars we cannot win, to punish people for victimless crimes (drugs prostitution etc) and worse, getting a federal government that will happily use the violence of the state to deny rights to gays and to tell women what they do with their bodies.

The only difference between Liberals. Dippers and Cons is for whom they want to use the violence of the state against us - none of them fundamentally disagree with the immorality of using that force to coerce and steal from people. That is the thing that separates us libertarians from the rest even while we may agree with both the left and right equally on various policies - we have a principals that we apply consistently, not chuck for the political opportunism of the moment and to slake a thirst for power.

Taylor has demonstrated he is more interested in 'art of the possible' rather than what is right. He's just as much a statist as any Liberal. Perhaps worse.

FWIW I wouldn't consider Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Randy Barnet or even many CATO folks 'libertarians' - they are libertarians of the moment, 'vulgar libertarians' who will abandon libertarian principles at the drop of a hat for power.

Posted by: Mike | 2010-07-29 5:14:42 PM

Mike: I generally agree. A consistent libertarian is someone who agrees with something that would fall out of the non-aggression axiom, if the non-aggression axiom were true and an axiom (it's not clear that it's either of those things).

Put differently -- the overlap between the conclusions of someone who adopts NAA, and someone who adopts a different political morality (Narveson's contractualism, for example) might be perfect. But the difference in why they come to those conclusions would be important.

I don't doubt Taylor's libertarianism. I've known him for a long time, and I'm sure that he is a libertarian in the same way that, say, Milton Friedman or Gary Johnson or Friedrich Hayek or Barry Goldwater count as libertarians. They may have some views that are inconsistent with libertarian principle, but that still makes them more libertarian than any other political view.

As far as I'm concerned, for example, Mormons count as Christians, even if some Christians want to say that they're not "really" Christians. Yes they are.

What we need are ways of marking different kinds of libertarians, and make use of those distinctions. We have them -- Austrians, anarcho-capitalists, Objectivists, liberaltarians, fusionists, etc. etc. -- we just need more of them.

As for whether or not participating in political parties (whether the major ones or less-than-major ones), that sounds like a dispute about strategy.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm all in favour of people doing what they most get excited about, in the direction of greater individual liberty. Think tanks pull your chain? Great. Go do that. Freedom Party? Fantastic, you've got my support. Conservative Party? No problem, go nuts. NDP? Sure, why not. Non-profits? Charities? Academia? Music? Poetry? Fiction? Non-fiction? Short stories? All of that is great near as I can tell. If we are to win back some semblance of liberty, and expand the freedoms we've recently won, we should push on all fronts. What's convenient is that I don't have to tell any of these people what to do -- they'll find their own path, and they'll push in their own way.

I'm also happy with making alliances based on particular issues. I'll fight with the NDP to get Marc Emery back to Canada, and to end the war on drugs. I'll fight with the Tories to dump the mandatory long-form census. And so on.

But I'm happy to be persuaded out of this view. What matters is getting more individual liberty. If my big-big tent strategy is contrary to this goal, I'd like to know it so that I can change it. But I'm no splitter, and I'm no excommunicator.

Although I agree that Glenn Beck and Alex Jones don't count as libertarians even in my big, big tent...

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2010-07-29 8:02:35 PM

First thing, you can listen to the debate for yourself here: http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/powerandpolitics_20100729_36122.mp3

Next to the point, Brock is right - libertarians are not part of the conservative movement. Look at how Stephen Taylor describes that movement: "You're part of the Conservative movement if you believe in traditionalism, in liberty, in getting the state out of your pocket book"

No, hell no. Traditionalism? What kind of principle is that? Something sticks around long enough and it becomes something we need to stand up for? The god damned monarchy has been with us for half a millennium, and while it's certainly Tory, it's hardly libertarian. If you believe in traditionalism, then by definition you are not a libertarian. You Tories don't believe in liberty above all, you believe in authority above all.

And as for getting the state out of my pocket book - what does that mean precisely? I want the state in my pocket book for some things. For the army, for the police, the courts - in fact for more courts than we have now (I'd love to see an environmental court, a medical malpractice court). I don't axiomatically oppose paying my own way - actually it's the exact opposite. I want to pay my own way, I'd appreciate having a choice about it of course ... but still - listen to Taylor, he's a swell guy and everything, but as big as the tent can get - is he really part of the tribe?

Posted by: Robert Jago | 2010-07-29 11:42:31 PM


I suspect we are in violent agreement on many things, but I simply don't like watering down the brand by making the tent too big.

I have no issues, like you, with policy alliances with whomever is promoting pro-liberty policies on a policy by policy basis. However, to assume that agreeing on one or two policies, especially ones as minor as making the census voluntary while more serious one are ignored, immediately means libertarians automatically will flock to support the Conservatives on voting day is wrong.

We may ally with the NDP on the drug war, but that doesn't make them libertarians, even if they says so. And we may agree with Taylor on the census, that doesn't make him a libertarian even if he says so.

Unlike you, or Robert Jago, I don't know Taylor personally. I only know him from the blogs and I came to libertarianism from the left, not the right (so much for libertarians being part of the right). But from what I have read of his over the last 5 years and from his various endeavours in that time, he is not a libertarian, he's a CPC apparatchik just as Cherniak is Liberal apparatchik. When he's on TV with Mike Brock, he'll claim to be a libertarian. When he's on with the Western Theocratic wing, I'm sure he'll say a pray and genuflect.

He'll be whatever he wants in order to buy votes or get power for the CPC and (if his gushing on the podcast is any indication) the PM - he seems to have a really fan-boy, cult of personality love for Harper. I don't think that is particularly libertarian.

I'm siding with RJ on this - he may have one, minor agreement with libertarianism, but that doesn't make Taylor part of the tribe. No matter what he says. And if he truly is, he's pimping the wrong party.

Taylor can call himself libertarian if he wants, but he's lying. He's done it in the past to promote his party (like a good collectivist) and I don't see how this is any different.

And for the record on the census, I think the info in the long-form census is valuable but it should not be mandatory. Rather than ramming something through in the summer, when no one is around and, as Mike Brock succinctly observed, it takes the heat off of the G20 fiasco, a real alternative that can guarantee the privacy of responses and the accuracy of the data while still being voluntary should have been worked out. Remember politics is the art of the possible, but only if you try to find out what is possible.

Posted by: Mike | 2010-07-30 6:07:25 AM

Peter: re:
"Taylor thinks being a part of the conservative movement is the best way to reach more individual liberty and individual responsibility."
Libertarians trying to even influence conservatives have consistently resulted in libertarians supporting political parties that are fundamentally opposed to the libertarian idea and that are worse than the other alternatives (even within the mainstream).
The only overlap between conservatism and the libertarian idea is when it comes to 'election talk', in action a conservative rarely acts libertarian and that is because they will always act as a conservative first.
The conservative movement was formed to oppose the liberal movement and conservatives have remained true to that opposition to what is now called the libertarian idea even if they may change how they talk when trying to get votes.
I can only assume Mr. Taylor is yet another person in deep denial, as are so many who call themselves libertarian conservatives or the similar deniers the libertarian socialists. Both to me have a very similar denial pattern. Somehow the state will 'wither away' by the use of strong authoritarian measures ... sure. It has not worked, it cannot, and doing the same thing time and time again and expecting different results is insanity.

Posted by: Valentine M. Smith | 2010-07-30 6:47:36 AM

For what it's worth, Stephen Taylor's position on Marc Emery:

The pragmatism argument is a good one; you can either be a purist and accomplish little howling at the moon or slog it out in the trenches moving the marker forward bit by bit.

Jaworski is doing it too working for a Conservative MP.

Posted by: j-Roddy | 2010-07-30 8:37:13 AM


Sure, but we have seen a net reduction in liberty under the Harper government. Bigger government, bigger military, more regulation.

Contrary to popular belief, I actually am an incrementalist. But if I'm going to be a patient little libertarian boy waiting for the dawn, I'd actually like to see it start to emerge at some point.

What this government has given libertarians is basically: "yes, we're increasing the size of government. Yes we've had bailouts. Yes there's more regulations. But the Liberals would be worse!"

That's not incrementalism. That's attenuated defeat!

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2010-07-30 8:56:43 AM

Mike Brock,

think of it like a vector. I think Jaworski and Taylor are doing their part pointing the government in the proper direction even if the net momentum is still going the other way... instead it is slower.

Also, I'm curious about "libertarian left" Mike's position on the government compelling people to register their property via the long-gun registry. Last time I checked, urban-dwelling NDP supporters don't care too much about private property.

From Mike's blog:
on the gun registry:
"it has cost way too much money, but it might be better just to implement a cheaper alternative within CPIC. Some police forces still think this is a good idea."

Posted by: j-Roddy | 2010-07-30 9:19:21 AM

Who is John Galt ? and where is he ?

Posted by: chevymo | 2010-08-16 2:25:19 PM

For information on what world Libertarians are doing, please see: http://www.Libertarian-International.org

Posted by: ral | 2010-12-28 4:50:00 AM

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